Carlin Romano’s America the Philosophical

William Giraldi in the Los Angeles Review of Books:

America-philosophical-carlin-romano-hardcover-cover-artYou've probably heard the news: We Americans are a mob of dipshits. In our nation's emporium of “ideas,” the madcap and maniacal sell like batteries in a blackout. We can't help it, apparently. We've been dullards since our inception — Boobus americanus in H.L. Mencken's unkind coinage — and so relish our pop-pundits and their orangutan ilk in Washington, our searing rabblement of the religious, our creationists, cranks, crackpots, or any wide-eyed witch in the street. In the slothful spirit of fairness, we like to give the scientist and the voodoo priestess equal measure, and then applaud the voodoo. That we are also a sub-literate breed is probably obvious, and probably the problem in the first place, since quality reading builds antibodies against bullshit. Mention Fernando Pessoa to a Portuguese — any Portuguese — and prepare yourself for an afternoon's colloquy. Toss a pebble into a crowd of Germans and the first person it touches will be pleased to pontificate on the importance of Goethe. Now go say “Walt Whitman” to the next American you run into and you'll be confronted with the vacant countenance of the over-medicated.

But forget the poor plebe — even some of last century's distinguished scholars and writers held American literature to be an anemic enterprise unworthy of serious account. Van Wyck Brooks enjoyed exclaiming the calumny that American artists and intellectuals had no “tradition” to build upon (then he let posterity know precisely who he was when he dubbed Mark Twain a fraud). Mencken, in an uncharacteristic break with discernment, thought Emerson an oaf with no influence, despite the fact that Mencken couldn't look on anything without wearing Nietzsche's eyeglasses; he must have missed those parts in Nietzsche — in the letters, journals, and Twilight of the Idols — extolling Emerson's genius. If you'd like to dine at a banquet of boorish inanity, see Theodore Dreiser's essay “Life, Art and America,” in which he castigates our nation for a famine of consequential writers and poets while inexplicably forgetting the existences of Dickinson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Melville, and Henry James. And Mr. James didn't help, either, when in his biography of Hawthorne he claimed that American air didn't have enough oxygen to let big ideas breathe properly. He sailed for England as soon as he could, and a generation later some of the best minds born on American soil — Eliot, Stein, and Pound for starters — followed in his huffy wake.

More here.

From Bauhaus to Bollywood

Aditya Dev Sood in Design! Public:

ScreenHunter_18 May. 31 16.07I spent Sunday morning at the Barbican, a curious London cultural institution that dates from the 1970s. Its heavy and brutalist architecture could have been featured in A Clockwork Orange. The Barbican was hosting a widely acclaimed exhibition on the Bauhaus. I went in there with my friend Sarah not expecting much — what was there about the Bauhaus, I wondered, that I had left to learn?

But the exhibition was a comprehensive curation, not only of the themes and preoccupations of the Bauhaus at various stages of its development and peripatetic movement around Germany to increasingly large urban centers, but also of its historical development and shifting, evolving priorities: now arts and crafts, now total-art-work, now industrial support, now architecture. There was even a brief section of the future legacy of the Bauhaus, which documented the movement of different students and teachers from the school to centers in other parts of Germany and the United States. I was surprised to learn that the Ulm School of Design, of which we have heard so much from M. P. Ranjan in the last couple of Design Public events, was set up by a Bauhaus student after the war, in 1953.

I had spent my entire college years in thrall to the lost but resilient legacy of the Bauhaus, studying its personalities from the point of view of painting, sculpture, theater — and even design pedagogy. Like all architects and designers, my foundational education also included a kind of recreation of the Bauhaus, and I too was therefore steeped in their lore. When I looked up, from the art books, posters, and gelatin prints through which Bauhaus culture continues to be transmitted, I found the rest of the world odd and strange.

More here.

Freaks, Geeks and Microsoft: How Kinect Spawned a Commercial Ecosystem

Mag-03Kinect-t_CA0-articleInlineRob Walker in the NYT Magazine:

At the International Consumer Electronics Show earlier this year, Steve Ballmer, Microsoft’s chief executive, used his keynote presentation to announce that the company would release a version [of Kinect] specifically meant for use outside the Xbox context and to indicate that the company would lay down formal rules permitting commercial uses for the device. A result has been a fresh wave of Kinect-centric experiments aimed squarely at the marketplace: helping Bloomingdale’s shoppers find the right size of clothing; enabling a “smart” shopping cart to scan Whole Foods customers’ purchases in real time; making you better at parallel parking.

An object that spawns its own commercial ecosystem is a thing to take seriously. Think of what Apple’s app store did for the iPhone, or for that matter how software continuously expanded the possibilities of the personal computer. Patent-watching sites report that in recent months, Sony, Apple and Google have all registered plans for gesture-control technologies like the Kinect. But there is disagreement about exactly how the Kinect evolved into an object with such potential. Did Microsoft intentionally create a versatile platform analogous to the app store? Or did outsider tech-artists and hobbyists take what the company thought of as a gaming device and redefine its potential?

This clash of theories illustrates a larger debate about the nature of innovation in the 21st century, and the even larger question of who, exactly, decides what any given object is really for. Does progress flow from a corporate entity’s offering a whiz-bang breakthrough embraced by the masses? Or does techno-thing success now depend on the company’s acquiescing to the crowd’s input? Which vision of an object’s meaning wins? The Kinect does not neatly conform to either theory. But in this instance, maybe it’s not about whose vision wins; maybe it’s about the contest.

Fantastic Voyage

120604_r22252_p233Emily Nussbaum on Community, Doctor Who, and fan cults, in the New Yorker (h/t: Amanda Marcotte):

The NBC series “Community” was created by Dan Harmon, a mad scientist of sitcoms—so divisive a figure that he was just run out of town by his own studio. (The show was re-upped for a fourth season, but Harmon was replaced with new showrunners.) Even amid the brutality of network TV production, this was a pretty shocking event, since “Community” is Dan Harmon, the way “Mad Men” is Matt Weiner. Set at a community college that is really a stage for wildly inventive genre experiments, it’s a comedy that’s at once alienating and warm, a sitcom lover’s sitcom that attracts the kind of fans that the media scholar Henry Jenkins once described, with admiration, as “frighteningly ‘out of control,’ undisciplined and unrepentant, rogue readers.”

In other words, not everyone. So perhaps it’s no coincidence that “Community” ’s excellent third season, which ended two weeks ago, featured a season-long meditation on the pains and pleasures of cult fanhood, structured around an homage to one of the greatest science-fiction shows: “Doctor Who.” The key to this exploration was the character of Abed Nadir, played by Danny Pudi with the gaze of an amused basilisk. Abed, who has Asperger’s syndrome and dreams of making documentaries, is in one sense a familiar sitcom character, the gentle alien observer—like Latka, in “Taxi.” But with each season he has drifted closer to the show’s center, replacing its ostensible hero, the smart-ass Jeff, and injecting “Community” with his super-fan enthusiasms, which range from Batman to “My Dinner with André.”

As Abed emerged, “Community” became a bit of a science-fiction show itself, the kind of series in which, in the season’s signature moment, a tossed die splits a dinner party into six alternate realities. In another plot this season, Abed and his best friend, Troy, constructed a Holodeck-like space in their apartment, which they called the Dreamatorium. Inside that green-and-yellow grid, Abed and Troy played out imaginary plots of their favorite show, “Inspector Spacetime,” which stars an “infinity knight” in a bowler hat, and his associate, Constable Reginald (Reggie) Wigglesworth. “Inspector Spacetime” is, of course, an affectionate tribute to “Doctor Who,” the long-running series that helped create our modern breed of Abeds and Dan Harmons—the sort of difficult obsessives who make original things and then get fired. “Doctor Who” débuted on the BBC in 1963, three years before “Star Trek” (and the day after Kennedy was assassinated). The show’s eponymous hero was (and is) a Time Lord, capable of jumping through time and space. He does so in the whirling TARDIS, which looks like a bright-blue phone booth but is as large as a mansion once you step inside. When near death, he generates a new body, conveniently played by a new actor (something NBC surely wishes were a tradition for showrunners). There have also been many “companions,” often plucky females—most famously Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen)—as well as enemies, like those Nazi-ish pepper pots the Daleks. The show used the shabbiest possible effects, plus a fly-by-night attitude toward narrative logic, although its low budget was as much a feature as a bug: it made something out of nothing, much the way Abed and Troy constructed their Dreamatorium engine out of cardboard tubes and a funnel.

Reality Hunger: On Lena Dunham’s “Girls”

1335673609Jane Hu in the LA Review of Books:

In the promotional trailer for the series, Dunham's character Hannah Horvath sits before her parents and proclaims: “I think I may be the voice of my generation,” only to retreat instantly behind the modification: “or at least a voice … of a generation.” This line, tagged as the catchphrase of Girls in the lead up to its pilot, was received almost as a dare. Someone, finally, was going to take on the challenge of speaking the real and raw truth for recession-era youth! For all its overwhelming narcissism, though, the line also anticipates the mix of recklessness and reluctance that the show cultivates. Girls wants to have it both ways: it wants to be both brash and unsure of itself, universal and specific, speaking (when it wants to) for a generation but reserving the right not to specify which one.

Based on the internet chatter, there seems to be a voracious desire to find oneself in Girls, implying an urgency to locate a voice for this generation, a generation that understands itself to be diverse. As The Hairpin's Jenna Wortham says about these girls: “They are us but they are not us. They are me but they are not me.” The show's representations of race, class, and gender have generated an expansive range of reactions, not least because of the show's monolithic middle-class whiteness. It seems like the one thing anyone can agree on is that, unlike Hannah Horvath, they don't eat cupcakes in the bathtub.

But if we're looking for what's truly universal in Dunham's depiction of young, white, upper-middle-class life in New York City, then maybe the cupcake isn't such a bad place to start. Eating is, after all, about as universal as it gets. The overwhelming excitement about and immediate backlash to Dunham's show both seem to suggest a profound hunger on the part of its audience for something nourishing, sustaining, and nutritious, prepared especially for them. This is fitting, because hunger, in all its manifestations, drives Girls. As with all lost generations, there seems to be a profound sense of lack among Hannah's friends. Hannah showcases her appetite for attention, sex, and food, none of which prove exclusive to one another.

Red Plenty Seminar

Book_red_plenty_jpg_280x450_q85Crooked Timber is hosting a seminar on Francis Spufford’s novel about the socialist calculation debate, Red Plenty, with posts by Carl Caldwell, Antoaneta Dimitrova, Felix Gilman, Kim Stanley Robinson, George Scialabba, Cosma Shalizi, and Rich Yeselson. (Cosma's Yakov Smirnoff-titled entry, “In Soviet Union, Optimization Problem Solves You,” made me laugh out loud.) Antoaneta Dimitrova:

Red Plenty is a book for social scientists in more ways than one. First because it draws on history and uses a great amount of documentary material, economic and social history of the Soviet Union to tell the story of the communist dream of abundance for all. And second, and perhaps more important, because its evidence driven narrative aims to answer several typical social science questions, especially for a social scientists interested in communism’s rise and fall. How could the Soviet planning economy be so successful in producing serious economic growth in the 1950s and 1960s, how could the Soviet system produce the science and innovation that led to space exploration and many other scientific achievements? And why did it then fail to continue doing so, to keep the pace of economic growth and scientific discovery?

Among Spufford’s many achievements in this book is that he provides some direct and some indirect answers to these questions. Even though he leads us to the answers by telling the stories of characters that are convincing and fully capable of engaging the reader’s interest in their destiny, he manages somehow to explore mechanisms that are structural and not personal. Despite the attention for Khrushchev and other historical figures from the Soviet Union, the personal vignettes are embedded in a narrative in which science, even more so than the idea of plenty – is the hero. This is perhaps best represented in by the prominent and fairly convincing character and the fate of the mathematician and economist Kantorovich. Other Red Plenty characters remain, as the planner Maksim Mokhov, ‘a confabulated embodiment of (the) institution’ (p. 395).

In contrast to many other books written about the Soviet period and especially about Stalinism, Spufford’s account is not emotional, grim and dramatic, does not aim to show the suffering of ordinary people or their disillusionment with the system as has already been done with unrivalled mastery by the classical works of Solzhenitsyn, Pasternak or Bulgakov, to name but a few. Instead, he shows the various characters influenced not so much by the cruel decisions, but by the dreams of the communist leaders. The leaders who, in accordance with Marxist dogma, pretended (Stalin) or hoped (Khrushchev) that they were social scientists and in Spufford’s interpretation harbored dreams of achieving abundance for all – Red Plenty.

The genome that keeps on giving

From Smithsonian:

Genome-sequencing-2Only one thing we can say with certainty: As much as we now know about the human genome, we still have a lot to learn about how we’ll use that knowledge.

Code read

Here’s more of the latest news about genetic research:

Video bonus: Richard Resnick is CEO of a company called GenomeQuest so he definitely has a point of view about how big a role genome sequencing will play in our lives. But he does make a good case in this TED talk.

More here.

Smells Like Old Spirit

From Science:

OldOlder folks give off a characteristic scent that's independent of race, creed, or diet. The Japanese even have a name for it: kareishu. Most people say they find the smell disagreeable, typically describing it as “stinky-sweet.” But in a new study, participants in a “blind sniff test” found the body odor of older people less intense and more pleasant than that of the young or middle-aged. Sensory neuroscientist Johan Lundström has been familiar with old-person scent since his childhood in Sweden, where he sometimes accompanied his mother to her job at a nursing home. Decades later, as the head of his own lab at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, he gave a talk at another nursing home. “The same smell hit me again,” he says. Lundström wondered if there really are specific age-related odors that the human sense of smell can detect. Although research shows that animals can distinguish the ages of other animals based on their odor, no comparable studies had been done in humans.

So Lundström and colleagues recruited 20 men and 21 women between the ages of 20 and 30 to be sniffers. All were healthy nonsmokers who didn't take drugs or medications. Meanwhile, a group of “donors” who were young (20 to 30 years old), middle age (45 to 55 years old), and old (75 to 95 years old) went to bed for five consecutive nights wearing T-shirts with absorbent pads sewn into the armpits. To make sure they gave off only their natural scent, the donors washed their hair and bodies with odorless shampoos and soap before going to bed each night. They also refrained from smoking, drinking alcohol, or eating spicy food. The volunteers sniffed the pads worn by the variously aged donors and grouped the smells by age. They classified the smells of the older donors with 12% greater accuracy than would be expected by chance, compared with 8% better than chance for the younger and middle-aged donors, the researchers report online today in PLoS ONE. According to Lundström, the real surprise came when the sniffers were asked to rate the smells by intensity and unpleasantness. Even though the volunteers compared the smell of old people to stale water or old basements, when they encountered the smell amid those of the other age groups, they consistently rated the old person odor as the least intense and least unpleasant of the three.

More here.

Thursday Poem

A Swan from Prague

I was making my way in halfsteps across a bridge
In that city of bridges, and met coming my way,

Looking head-on like a fat white ham with wings,
A swan in flight, waist high, at the bridge crest.

I was inching along as the swan with its yard-long neck
Towed its floating midriff in air speeding past.

Lost, it wanted back to the city’s river,
A river with two names in opposing tongues.

I looked ahead and saw some police laughing
At the wings going mad and the paddle-feet tucked.

I could not remember not being in pain,
Not being a man with bone spurs gouging his hip.

In that city of memorials, among memorials
Of immolation and metamorphosis,

I thought about this place in history—
I’d seen the altered road signs from ’68,

I’d seen the thugs in videos of ’89—
And knew for this span of time there was no place.

The police saw me leaning and halting
And turned to watch the swan, as I did,

All of us grateful to be distracted.
And I was sure that they, the laughing police,

Imagined that whatever my trouble was—drunkenness,
Disability—it would take care of itself,

And that the bird would come to rest again
On the river, the river of clashing names.

I told my wife this story, and as a memento
She gave me a solid bubble of Czech crystal,

A lovely blue-headed swan which rides
Now on a shifting river of paper.
.

by Mark Jarman
from Blackbird, Fall 2011, Vol. 10 No. 2
.

no frumpy old bird woman

Vivian_Maier_Self_Portrait_ftr

Imagine being the kind of person who finds everything provocative. All you have to do is set out on a walk through city streets, a Rolleiflex hanging from a strap around your neck, and your heart starts pounding in anticipation. In a world that never fails to startle, it is up to you to find the perfect angle of vision and make use of the available light to illuminate thrilling juxtapositions. You have the power to create extraordinary images out of ordinary scenes, such as two women crossing the street, minks hanging listlessly down the backs of their matching black jackets; or a white man dropping a coin in a black man’s cup while a white dog on a leash looks away, as if in embarrassment; or a stout old woman braced in protest, gripping the hands of a policeman; or three women waiting at a bus stop, lips set in grim response to the affront represented by your camera, their expressions saying “go away” despite the sign behind them announcing, “Welcome to Chicago.” Welcome to this crowded stage of a city, where everyone is an actor—the poor, the rich, the policemen and street vendors, the nuns and nannies. Even a leaf, a balloon, a puddle, the corpse of a cat or horse can play a starring role. And you are there, too, as involved in the action of this vibrant theater as anyone else, caught in passing at just the right time, your self-portraits turned to vaporous mirages in store windows, outlined in the silhouettes of shadows and reflected in mirrors that you find in unexpected places.

more from Joanna Scott at The Nation here.

The House That Doe Built

Glenna_lib_250_031

A concrete mansion sits empty on the edge of Zwedru, the capital of Liberia’s Grand Gedeh county. Its tall balustrades are unpainted; its window frames lack glass. Liberia is strewn with buildings abandoned in the course of its wars, but this one was never finished. The mansion was scheduled for completion in the summer of ’91, after it was commissioned by Samuel Doe, the young army sergeant from Grand Gedeh who wrested power from William Tolbert in the 1980 coup. For his thirty-ninth birthday, President Doe planned a party at his new home–dinner in the blue room followed by dancing around the pool, lined with a mosaic of the Liberian flag. Four months before the celebrations, Doe was captured and hacked to death–ear by ear, limb by limb–in a grisly show of violence orchestrated by the former rebel chief Prince Johnson, a presidential candidate in October’s presidential race, and a former ally of the ex-President Charles Taylor, convicted on 11 counts of war crimes at The Hague last month.

more from Kate Grace Thomas at Guernica here.

New Spanish Finance Horrors

Spanish_flag-jpg-2-1

Spain is an unhappy federal structure held together by subsidies and crooked accounting. The drive of Catalans and Basques and others for independence has been checked by a system in which the regions of the country have gained more and more fiscal and policy autonomy. That worked pretty well when Spain was booming, the markets were as bubbly as a glass of champagne, money was cheap and credit was good. But now the music has stopped. Spain’s new European paymasters want the country to march in lockstep. They want the central government to sign austerity agreements that will bind the Catalans, the Basques, the Galicians and everybody else. Essentially, they are demanding that Spain recentralize, and that the national government set out tight national budgets that tell the ‘autonomous’ provinces what they can and can’t do. This may not work at all, and it cannot work for long. Spain is a democracy. People vote. Sometimes they vote for regional parties, sometimes they vote for the big national ones. If the central government is imposing tough fiscal limits on the provinces, it’s likely that over time — and not much of it — support will shift away from the national parties to the provincial ones. The Catalans will be sure that they are getting cheated by the poorer provinces; others will also believe that they aren’t getting their ‘fair share’.

more from Walter Russell Mead at The American Interest here.

Guilty, but Not Responsible?

Dr-William-Petit-Jr-New-H-007Rosalind English in The Guardian:

The US neuroscientist Sam Harris claims in a new book that free will is such a misleading illusion that we need to rethink our criminal justice system on the basis of discoveries coming from the neurological wards and MRI scans of the human brain in action.

The physiologist Benjamin Libet famously demonstrated in the 1980s that activity in the brain's motor regions can be detected some 300 milliseconds before a person feels that he has decided to move. Subjects were hooked up to an EEG machine and were asked to move their left or right hand at a time of their choosing. They watched a specially designed clock to notice what time it was when they were finally committed to moving their left or right hand. Libet measured the electrical potentials of their brains and discovered that nearly half a second before they were aware of what they were going to do, he was aware of their intentions. Libet's findings have been borne out more recently in direct recordings of the cortex from neurological patients. With contemporary brain scanning technology, other scientists in 2008 were able to predict with 60% accuracy whether subjects would press a button with their left or right hand up to 10 seconds before the subject became aware of having made that choice (long before the preparatory motor activity detected by Libet).

Clearly, findings of this kind are difficult to reconcile with the sense that one is the conscious source of one's actions. The discovery that humans possess a determined will has profound implications for moral responsibility. Indeed, Harris is even critical of the idea that free will is “intuitive”: he says careful introspection can cast doubt on free will. In an earlier book on morality, Harris argues

Thoughts simply arise in the brain. What else could they do? The truth about us is even stranger than we may suppose: The illusion of free will is itself an illusion (The Moral Landscape)

But a belief in free will forms the foundation and underpinning of our enduring commitment to retributive justice. The US supreme court has called free will a “universal and persistent” foundation for our entire system of law.

Climate Armageddon: How the World’s Weather Could Quickly Run Amok

Fred Guterl in Scientific American:

How-worlds-weather-could-quickly-run-amok_1The true gloomsters are scientists who look at climate through the lens of “dynamical systems,” a mathematics that describes things that tend to change suddenly and are difficult to predict. It is the mathematics of the tipping point—the moment at which a “system” that has been changing slowly and predictably will suddenly “flip.” The colloquial example is the straw that breaks that camel's back. Or you can also think of it as a ship that is stable until it tips too far in one direction and then capsizes. In this view, Earth's climate is, or could soon be, ready to capsize, causing sudden, perhaps catastrophic, changes. And once it capsizes, it could be next to impossible to right it again.

The idea that climate behaves like a dynamical system addresses some of the key shortcomings of the conventional view of climate change—the view that looks at the planet as a whole, in terms of averages. A dynamical systems approach, by contrast, consider climate as a sum of many different parts, each with its own properties, all of them interdependent in ways that are hard to predict.

More here.