Human Scale

Justin E. H. Smith in Paper Monument:

Mueck_Couple_Under_An_Umbrella-480x302While the science-­fiction trope of travelling great distances or growing to great sizes often serves as the stuff of respectable fantasy, shrinking down and travelling microscopically through “inner space” is generally, by contrast, regarded as child’s play, familiar from light Lily Tomlin movies and Disneyland rides with no minimum height requirement. Relatedly, telescopy preceded microscopy by several decades at the beginning of the scientific revolution, even though the two practices involve exactly the same optical technology and differ only with respect to the orientation of the lenses. When Galileo’s observations of the features of the sun were destabilizing ancient cosmology, the microscope was still being dismissed as a hobbyist’s “flea glass.”

We might be orbiting here around an obvious point: there is something undignified about tininess. And yet both ends of the scale, the microscopic and the macroscopic, the baroque curly-­cue and the sublime of the infinite void, are part of one and the same historical shift: the abrupt jolt away from the mesoscopic, which is to say the discovery of the problem of scale.

The Australian artist Ron Mueck’s great coup, in his outsized hyperrealist sculptures of human beings currently on display at the Fondation Cartier in Paris, is that he has taken on what might be called the philosophical problem of scale, but has done so without heavy-­handedly forcing us all into the position of the incredible shrinking viewer. That is, visitors are invited to consider the way scale affects perception, and indeed ontology (for what makes these human figures more thanreal is nothing but the fact that there is more of them), but there is no sense that we have ourselves been diminutivized for some cheap adventure.

More here.



A Writer at War collects correspondence and diary entries by Irish-born author and philosopher Dame Iris Murdoch, perhaps the most criminally under-read writer in America at this time. Why Murdoch should be under-read in the States is a mystery. Author of twenty-five novels plus significant works on philosophy, Murdoch wrote narratives of great psychological intensity that grapple with mythic forces: the search for meaning, morality, the loss of faith, and manifestations of love. Often featuring charismatic male protagonists, many of her books, including Booker Prize-winning The Sea, The Sea, are fearless tours de force. In the U.K., Murdoch has not been so neglected, witness the three biographies of her within the last decade, but the fascination with her personal affairs has at times threatened to overshadow her literary achievements. If Iris Murdoch exists in the American popular consciousness, it is largely due to her widower John Bayley’s three successful memoirs written after her death, and the subsequent film based on them.

more from Laura Albritton at Harvard Review here.

a dream


One day in 1842, the thirty-eight-year old Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote in his notebook: “To write a dream, which shall resemble the real course of a dream, with all its inconsistency, its eccentricities and aimlessness—with nevertheless a leading idea running through the whole. Up to this old age of the world, no such thing has ever been written.” Indeed. From the first dream of Gilgamesh four thousand years ago on to our time, Hawthorne’s observation proves to be right. Something in the retelling of a dream, however haunting and however true, lacks the peculiar verisimilitude of dreams, their unique vocabulary and texture, their singular identity. Alice, whose experience of dreams is one of the deepest and most convincing in all literature, is quite ready to admit that words cannot be used to name the endless plurality of the world. When Humpty Dumpty tells her that he uses the word “glory” to mean “there’s a nice knock-down argument for you,” Alice objects that “glory” does not mean “a nice knock-down argument.”

more from Alberto Manguel at the NYRB here.

gatsby now


I was a little surprised, not too long ago, to hear a student mention that The Great Gatsby was her favorite book. “Because it is the only book you have read,” flashed through my mind, before I could shut up the red-faced misanthrope who accompanies me through my days. I have seen enough of contemporary undergraduates to know that they do read — oh, they do indeed – but only if instructed to do so in order to prepare them for some specific form of assessment that will end in a credential they can list on their curriculum vitae (Harry Potter? Well, that must be read to prove one’s bona fides as a Millennial). But, no, in this case the ruddy misanthrope was wrong, and was well advised to turn his bar stool back round and continue toasting Jason Peters’ health with a long pour of rye on the rocks. There was something else at stake in that student’s love — something that I found mysterious. For, while I always admired F. Scott Fitzgerald’s success at straddling the border between celebrity and genius, literary realism and a lyrical modernism (the modernism that might have been, as opposed to the modernism that was), I never quite understood why Gatsby occupies the place it does in so many persons’ imaginations, their canons of youthful affection.

more from James Matthew Wilson at Front Porch Republic here.

Sons and Lovers: a century on

From The Guardian:

LawrenceBettmannCorbis4“I tell you I've written a great book,” DH Lawrence informed his publisher Edward Garnett, after sending him the manuscript of Sons and Lovers in November 1912. “Read my novel – it's a great novel.” Lawrence's immodesty is forgivable: the book had been through four drafts, and after two years of struggle he was hugely relieved to have it finished. The sense of elation didn't last long. He worried about the title (he had originally called the book “Paul Morel”). He worried whether it might benefit from a foreword (and belatedly posted one to Garnett). He worried about the dust jacket, and arranged for a friend, Ernest Collings, to design one (like the foreword, it wasn't used). Beneath these worries lay a deeper worry, about the text itself: “I am a great admirer of my own stuff while it's new, but after a while I'm not so gone on it,” he admitted. He was already on to the next thing (a draft of what would become The Rainbow), and had “scarcely the patience” to correct the proofs. But he was proud when a finished copy reached him in Italy. And the word he used to Garnett recurred, in letters to friends. “It is quite a great novel”; “I remember you telling me, at the beginning, it would be great. I think it is so.”

Lawrence was right. Sons and Lovers is a great novel. A century of readers have reached for the same adjective. FR Leavis did, when he enrolled Lawrence in the “great tradition” of the English novel, comprising Jane Austen, George Eliot, Henry James and Joseph Conrad. And Philip Larkin did so, too, describing Lawrence as “England's greatest novelist” and Sons and Lovers as his finest achievement: “Cock me! Nearly every page of it is absolutely perfect.” The perfection wasn't apparent to those close to Lawrence at the time, including his childhood sweetheart Jessie Chambers, his editor Garnett, and his wife-to-be Frieda, all of whom suggested improvements and left their mark on the finished text. But the reviews were good, and 100 years later the novel's reputation holds up, despite the recent dip in Lawrence's critical standing.

More here.

Slowing the aging process using only antibiotics

From Kurzweil AI:

Lightmatter_lab_miceWhy is it that within a homogeneous population of the same species, some individuals live three times as long as others? EPFL researchers investigated this question and found the mechanism responsible for aging hidden deep within mitochondria. The were able to dramatically slow aging down in worms by administering antibiotics to the young, achieving a lifespan extension of 60 percent. The aging process identified by EPFL scientists takes place within organelles called mitochondria, known as the cellular powerhouses because they transform nutrients into proteins including adenosine triphosphate (ATP), used by muscles as energy. Several studies have shown that mitochondria are also involved in aging. The new EPFL research, done in collaboration with partners in the Netherlands and the U.S., pinpoints the exact genes involved and measures the consequences to longevity when the amount of protein they encode for is varied: less protein, longer life.

Laboratory mice in the BXD reference population typically live from 365 to 900 days. This population, which reflects genetic variations that occur naturally within a species, is used by many researchers in an approach known as “real-world genetics.” The benefit of working with this population in particular is that their genome is almost completely decoded. The team led by professor Auwerx, head of EPFL’s Laboratory of Integrative and Systemic Physiology, analyzed mice genomes as a function of longevity and found a group of three genes situated on chromosome number two that, up to this point, had not been suspected of playing any role in aging. But the numbers didn’t lie: a 50 percent reduction in the expression of these genes — and therefore a reduction in the proteins they code for — increased mouse life span by about 250 days.

More here.


by Jalees Rehman

“Shorter sentences and simple words!” was the battle cry of all my English teachers. Their comments and corrections of our English-language essays and homework assignments were very predictable. Apparently, they had all sworn allegiance to the same secret Fraternal Order of Syntax Police. I am sure that students of the English language all over the world have heard similar advice from their teachers, but English teachers at German schools excel in their diligent use of linguistic guillotines to chop up sentences and words. The problem is that they have to teach English to students who think, write and breathe in German, the lego of languages.

Stack Things Fall Apart

Lego blocks invite the observer to grab them and build marvelously creative and complex structures. The German language similarly invites its users to construct composite words and composite sentences. A virtually unlimited number of composite nouns can be created in German, begetting new words which consist of two, three or more components with meanings that extend far beyond the sum of their parts. The famous composite German word “Schadenfreude” is now used worldwide to describe the shameful emotion of joy when observing harm befall others. It combines “Schaden” (harm or damage) and “Freude” (joy), and its allure lies in the honest labeling of a guilty pleasure and the inherent tension of combining two seemingly discordant words.

The lego-like qualities of German can also be easily applied to how sentences are structured. Commas are a German writer's best friends. A German sentence can contain numerous clauses and sub-clauses, weaving a quilt of truths, tangents and tangential truths, all combined into the serpentine splendor of a single sentence. Readers may not enjoy navigating their way through such verschachtelt sentences, but writers take great pleasure in envisioning a reader who unwraps a sentence as if opening a matryoshka doll only to find that the last word of a mammoth sentence negates its fore-shadowed meaning.

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My Pakistan Television Show

by Shadab Zeest Hashmi

PTVWhat they did not understand at the PTV station was that it's in my nature to be elsewhere, nodding attentively one minute, gone the next. I didn't understand it either, the tendency to let myself be stolen into another world, switching between here and there like flashes of moon jellies, now lit, now dim. I was six and always behind by a few moments or hours even in the sleepy town of Peshawar with its gray mountain-scape, chinar trees and flaxen afternoons; its rhythms defined less by blasting horns of public buses, or noise of plaza construction, more by the Mochi, the tap-tapping cobbler who could sew together anything from a ripped shoe buckle to a suitcase, the churning of the dyer with smoke rising from his boiling dyes and moist dupatta scarves in solids or tie-dye bellowing joyfully on a grid of ropes, or the radio playing commentary in cricket season, the sudden bursts and crescendos of the cheering crowds.

I don't recall the color or contours of the PTV building but I remember vividly my obsession with skipping across large square tiles, instead of walking normally from the make-up room to the studio. The make-up artist was a friendly lady, who, it seemed, could not do her work without chewing gum. She smelled like hairspray, lipstick and moist base; the smells I loved in this surreal, mirrored room, make-up being my favorite of all forbidden things in my regular life.

In the producer's room Marie biscuits and blue-rimmed teacups with thick chai were in constant supply. I would get mesmerized by the upside down reflection of Quaid-e-Azam Jinnah's photo on the glass top of the desk, dizzied as I'd get by the reflected motion of the ceiling fan—all the while trying to memorize lines. The props were another distraction: how could I not tinker with larger than life butterflies and flowers? I once ate all the sweet choori meant for the parrot that was to appear on my show. When I was told they had designed a door in a large apple for me to make an entry from, I couldn't keep it a secret and told everyone I knew, weeks before the actual episode. Those were the days before video games and the Internet, and emerging out of an apple was terribly newsworthy.

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Monday Poem

East-facing Windows

this morning our bed is ablaze
in wanton light

the sun hammers our windows
rimmed by zero wide and open

unrestrained by nada
it’s really something nothing

even oceans are more miniscule
than this dawning sea immense and single
that starts the day with a silent gong

no thought breaks its breakers
no idea surfs its silver spilling splinters
no theorems curse its curls and crests
no theses trip its liquid sprinters

light alone
our tireless maker

our natural neutral

Jim Culleny

Why Epistemology Matters

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

Western_PhilosophyEpistemology is the philosophical study of knowledge. Its main questions are: What do we know?; How do we know it?; and What distinguishes knowledge from lucky guesses, sheer dogmatism, and simple ignorance? The application of this discipline seems pretty obvious in the sense that our answers to these questions will then allow us the means to sort out many of the factual questions before us. A model for knowledge yields a model for inquiry, which, when put in to practice, resolves our disagreements. This is the old school story of the relevance of epistemology. It goes back to Xenophanes, who held in the hymn to progress that even though the gods didn't give us all the truths, we are better off inquiring. This thought runs from the ancient through the modern period to Descartes, who held that his exercises were for the sake of providing a means for philosophy and science to proceed with powerful criteria for progress. And this thought is alive even now with the applications of epistemology by Michael Lynch in his recent In Praise of Reason and Paul Boghossian in his Fear of Knowledge. The Cato Institute's Juan Sanchez's use of the term “epistemic closure” to criticize conservatives for their bad intellectual habits of know-nothingism, too, is in this tradition.

We think the old school story is right, at least in its broad outline. An epistemology is a useful thing to to sort nonsense from the things worth deliberating about; an epistemology is also useful as a guide for deliberation. But there's a problem in the background, and it's one that's regularly been pointed out about a number of high points in the Western tradition. It runs like this: Often, these epistemologies, for all their promise of being deployments of critical thinking, end up being merely dressed-up apologetics for the authors' preferred beliefs. Descartes is regularly the prime target for this criticism – his method was to doubt everything in order to find criteria for truth that could not be doubted; and once he found those criteria, they were used to endorse the core commitments of the Catholic Christianity to which Descartes had ascribed. How convenient, says the critic. And reasonably so.

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Bringing Sexy Back

by Quinn O'Neill V2

One of my windows overlooks a large grassy field that's shared among residents of my building. On sunny days, it's often strewn with young bikini-clad women, irradiating their flesh in order to achieve a darker complexion. Some people surely would appreciate the view; but being of the wrong sexual persuasion, having studied pathology, and having had a few friends who've had skin cancer, I can think only of the risks associated with their behavior.

Cancer is arguably the most serious consequence of excessive sun exposure. Worldwide, skin cancers comprise a third of diagnosed malignancies and most are attributable to over-exposure to UV radiation. Skin cancer comes in a number of varieties, the most common types being squamous cell carcinoma, basal cell carcinoma, and melanoma. These vary widely in their appearance, but all arise when cells within the epidermis – the outermost layer of the skin – proliferate in an unregulated fashion and invade the underlying tissue. They can kill either through extension to adjacent vital structures or by metastasizing to other organs.

Despite the risks associated with UV radiation, almost 28 million Americans visit sunbeds every year, with 70% of these being white women between the ages of 16 and 29 – the same demographic that turns up on the grass outside my window on sunny days. By their standards, the typical person affected by skin cancer might be considered old, but their own age group is not invulnerable. I've personally known a few people who've developed melanoma – the most deadly kind of skin cancer – close to or before the age of 30. I grew up in a town with a large population of pale Celtic descendents, so my experience isn't reflective of risk in the general population; however, it probably does reflect an increased risk of skin cancers among lighter complected people. Unfortunately, very fair people at high risk may also be the most likely to feel unacceptably pale and take to the lawn in a bikini.

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Share and Share Alike

by Misha Lepetic

“People say New Yorkers can't get along. Not true.
I saw two New Yorkers, complete strangers, sharing a cab.
One guy took the tires and the radio; the other guy took the engine.”
~ David Letterman

Cheap-motelA few months ago, friends of mine moved to the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn. The three of them signed a lease on a five-bedroom duplex, with the express purpose of leasing out the remaining two rooms on Airbnb, the service that allows people to rent out extra rooms or apartments on a short-term, informal basis. Since then, they have had a colorful assortment of travelers, tourists, students and businessmen tramp through their place. In return, the additional income has allowed them to live in a much larger and better appointed place than would have been otherwise possible.

The expense of renting an apartment in New York has been the stuff of legend for a long time now, but as this expense continues its inexorable climb, brokering sites such as Airbnb have inspired people, perhaps for the first time, to intentionally re-conceptualize their living space as a business model. In other words, what is generously known as the “sharing economy” is really the monetization of all those bits and pieces – your apartment, your car, your power tools – that used to sit around and just, well, be yours.

And then last week, New York Administrative Law Judge Clive Morrick ruled Airbnb illegal. Is this really a setback to all the annoying shouting about the “sharing economy”? Or is it more of a setback to Silicon Valley’s dogma that there is always another patch of contemporary life that, whether it knows it or not, is in need of disruption?

Actually, let’s first be clear about the ruling, since there has been much breathlessness in the media around this. The so-called “hotel law” violated by the respondent had been passed in 2010. Specifically, the law prohibits the right to charge for a stay of less than 29 days if the person renting out the space is not present. So the law still has plenty of loopholes; Airbnb is by no means “illegal.” But it is also worth mentioning that most leases explicitly prohibit any rentals – most New Yorkers don’t need such a “hotel law” to find themselves in violation of their lease (or even condo or coop rules). This of course has not stopped Airbnb from encouraging people to sign up; after all, the company gets roughly 10% per transaction and is currently estimated to be worth around $2.5bn.

However, the ruling does raise an important point about the informality. When one talks of the informal economy, one imagines vast and chaotic open-air markets in Argentina, or hardworking street vendors in Bangkok. The informal also takes the form of vast trading networks, such as the flow of computer equipment into and out of Paraguay, as richly described by Robert Neuwirth in The Stealth of Nations. But informality has always been here in the United States, too, and it is getting bigger and more important.

As James Surowiecki noted in a recent New Yorker piece, approximately $2 trillion dollars of income went unreported to the IRS last year. But what is really impressive is the rate at which off-the-books income is increasing: “in 1992, the I.R.S. estimated that the government was losing $80 billion a year in income-tax revenue. Its estimate for 2006 was $385 billion, almost five times as much” – and that is still probably an underestimate. It is also worth considering that, as the job market has stagnated since the 2008 crash, these numbers can only have continued to increase.

Hence the great attraction in monetizing assets such as the extra room in your apartment. As an exceptionally carefully executed brokering service, Airbnb found its sweet spot by taking the classifieds from Craigslist and bolting on a rating and feedback system pioneered by eBay, the grand-daddy of retail-based brokering sites. Trust and transparency are literally what make this market function. Airbnb will even send over a photographer to make your place’s listing look great – after all, unlike Craigslist, they have real skin in the game. (Of course, this same transparency makes easy pickings for anyone wanting to enforce laws like New York’s). More subtly, it’s worth examining the ideological role the individual is expected to play, as shown in the way Airbnb organizes consumption.

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The Mundane-Ecstatic: Reconsidering J M Synge’s Prose

by Liam Heneghan

Dedicated to the students who travel with Randall Honold and me to Wicklow, West Kerry, and Connemara, this summer, following in the footsteps of Synge.

SyngeAt that time in my life before I realized that such things are rare, I was paid, modestly it’s true, by Glenveagh National Park to travel on foot through parts of northern Donegal to collect and name insects. It is rare to have time on one’s hands, rare to love so fully what one does, and rare to have so little conception of what the future holds. I was, however, a little lonely. Each morning I walked transects across the lonely bog to net flies. In the evenings I had all to myself the park’s administration building which housed a research facility where I would gently boil the preserved flies in beakers of sodium hydroxide and mount their translucent parts in euparol, an aromatic embedding medium, on glass slides. At the other side of the building was the bunk room where I slept. I only rarely talked to another soul.

Seeking company was, therefore, one of my reasons for taking afternoon bicycle rides through the mountainy countryside surrounding the park and when I could I’d chat greedily with farmers standing at the edges of their fields. The occasional walker would also stop and turn on hearing my bicycle approach and would say a word or two to me about the weather. It was oftentimes quite warm on those summer afternoons though, not infrequently, an immeasurable bank of gauzy cloud would roll in from the north Atlantic and obscure the sun. At that time I conjectured that the fine-grained nature of the Irish countryside, the fact that one could see every speck at a distance, every flower popping out from among grassy bog, was because of the immense amount of moisture in the air. Everything in Ireland is viewed through a million wet lenses. I talked one late afternoon in July of 1987 with a farmer who had stopped from his labor to drink cold tea from a little glass bottle. More often than not though the little back roads in Donegal were deserted.

One afternoon I rode an ambitious route which brought me closer to the sea. Many years later I drove those roads with my father, and he and an aging fisherman from Bunbeg assessed my father’s Irish, the latter by glances of incomprehension, as they both looked out on the waves. As I rode my bicycle through one of those small villages back in 1987 a dog who took especial umbrage at me on my bicycle worried me quite persistently. I sped up as best I could with him nipping viciously at my heels. The dog knew the terrain better than I, of course, and as we passed by a house close to the edge of the village he ran up on an embankment at end of the garden. Within a moment or two he was running level with my head. I assumed he was about to take a flying leap at me but he left off the chase, the knowledge of his victory being, it would seem, enough to satisfy him.

Later that afternoon I puffed my way up an especially steep boreen. The afternoon was hot and the birds were quiet in the recesses of the hedges. The road eventually defeated me and I dismounted and pushed my bike up the hill. I walked by a little house at the garden gate of which a woman stood and looking out upon the road. I hello-ed her and she mutely greeted me. I continued on my way. As I made my way to the summit of the little hill I felt a thud on my shoulder and then heard a series of sharp clacks upon the tarmac road. Someone was throwing stones at me. Looking back I saw a small besuited man who had appeared at the door of the house. He bent down to pick up another handful of pebbles and loosed them in my direction. The woman-of-the-house maintained her stance, though now looked in my direction. After my first yelp, none of us uttered a thing. I worked my way up the hill, as one does in a nightmare where one laboriously runs to slow avail. Stones, close by, rained down. On gaining the top of the hill I jumped back on the bicycle and sped off downhill and away from my assailant. Later that day I made my way back to the park by another route and was unmolested by neither man nor dog.

That’s the story! That’s the story!

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ON THE EDGE: retreat on the west coast of Kerry

by Sue Hubbard

Picture 148I have come about as far west in Europe as I can go without falling into the sea. The next stop is America. It is a different world to the busy life in Islington, north London that I normally lead dominated by deadlines, art openings, friends and family. I am in retreat. I have been coming to this extraordinary place, Cill Rialaig, an abandoned hamlet of stone cottages on the edge of a cliff, 300 feet above the Atlantic in Kerry on the west coast of Ireland for some time now. The village was restored in the 90s as an artist's colony. Mostly for visual artists but the odd writer, like me, slips in under the net. You have everything you need, though it's very simple. A kitchen, a shower, a peat burning stove. I sleep in a tiny converted hay loft, reached by a ladder. It has steep eaves and the bed nearly fills the room and there is only one tiny window. It is the view from that window that brings me back, that has entered my heart. It looks straight out on the Atlantic. At night the sky, a black dome of twinkling stars, my own planetarium. On a clear night you can see every constellation. It is rare in the modern world to experience real dark. And across the bay there is the blip of the far off light-house, like a heartbeat. Waking in the morning is always different. Sometimes there's a thick sea mist and everything is invisible, as though someone has spilled a bucket of white wash. Or it might be raining; insistent grey Irish rain that soaks everything, including the sheep sheltering behind the dry stone walls. But if you are lucky the strait will be full of sun, the sea calm and the colour of pewter, and you'll be able to see out to the two little rocky, uninhabited islands of Scarif and Deenish and the soft mountains on the headland beyond. It's like a peep of heaven. This is what this place must have looked like a hundred, no five hundred, even a thousand years ago. The only sign of modernity is the barbed wire fence that keeps in the sheep. Ahead there is only sea, sky and the islands. The rest is a just patchwork of fields with their tumbling dry stone walls and the odd standing stone or carved Celtic cross their inscriptions erased by harsh storms that lash in from the Atlantic.

I come here to think and write. I have written a series of poems The Idea of Islands, about my response to the place which was published by Occasional Press, here in Ireland, with wonderful charcoal drawings by the Irish artist Donald Teskey. They express something of this bleak and beautiful landscape, scared by poverty and abandoned by previous inhabitants forced to emigrate to America or Canada to find work. The also explore in language that, I hope, is both painterly and muscular, the ‘anthracite dark' both actual and internal, and how it is we make sense of it in a secular world. These poems now form one third of my new English collection, just published by Salt: The Forgetting and Remembering of Air. It was here I also finished my recently published novel, Girl in White, and wrote the introduction to my book of art essays: Adventures in Art. Writing, walking, reading, sleeping; that's what you do here.

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