The Poor Don’t Need Pity

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Joanna Scutts reviews Linda Tirado book, Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America, in In These Times (Photo by Lisa F. Young via Shutterstock):

This is scary to admit. In a country with vast resources but a social safety net that’s been shredded to ribbons, “the layer between lower-middle class and poor is horrifyingly porous from above,” Tirado writes. “A lot of us live in that spongy divide.” Our finely tuned class distinctions are a way of trying to order that “spongy divide” and predict who will fall—not us! Tirado’s distinctions, on the other hand, are rooted in experience: “Poverty is when a quarter is a fucking miracle. Poor is when a dollar is a miracle. Broke is when five bucks is a miracle.” Working class, you have a place to live; middle class, that place is secure, even “nice,” and you can buy furniture and toys; and “rich is anything above that.” This is not about the 99% and the 1%, terms Tirado doesn’t use. When she addresses “rich people,” she means the people who can afford to buy this book and have the leisure to read it—not Koch-level plutocrats. People whose lives are relatively stable, who might have a decent credit score, health insurance, a bank account, retirement savings, the basic requirements of civic life that we have redefined as luxuries for the luckiest.

This important redefining of “rich” means that when Tirado addresses a final chapter to “Rich People,” the reader has to line up with the straw men: right-wing hypocrites who think the poor are lazy, or smug urbanites who believe that a lack of organic kale equals child abuse. I’m not a rich person, you want to protest—I don’t think it’s superior to get drunk on claret in a restaurant rather than on moonshine at the side of the road. But Tirado keeps tapping your knee and she’ll find a place that makes you jerk, where you find yourself thinking, I wouldn’t do that. You should make a different choice. Her refusal to flatter the reader gives the book its urgency and its force. It’s not a sob story (though it could make you weep with frustration); it’s a confrontation with the way that poor people are seen and judged day after day—by good liberals as well as evil Republicans, by the 99% as well as the 0.01%.

Tirado’s stories, her calculations, and her statistics are not new. When you reach a chapter called “You Can’t Pay a Doctor in Chickens Anymore,” you take a deep breath, because you know what’s coming. It’s still shocking, though, that an expectant first-time mother on Medicaid can’t find a clinic to give her care and has to rely on books, friends and Google until she shows up at the ER to give birth. Dental care, mental health care, vision care, preventative care—it all costs money, and its lack is written on the bodies of the poor. We might imagine that people who clean toilets or fry fast food are exhausted and demoralized; we might not appreciate that they probably have to ask their boss for permission to pee, since American workers aren’t guaranteed bathroom breaks. We might not always register that the service worker speaking in perky inanities is reading from a script and can be fired if she misses a word. We might not do the math to calculate that the earnings from a 40-hour-a-week job on minimum wage, after half go to housing, equal $7,540. Per year. Even a more generous calculation—10 bucks an hour, one-third on rent—gives you 10 unallocated dollars a day, so “the world is your oyster.” In case the tone’s too subtle here, Tirado clarifies: “The math doesn’t fucking work.”

More here.

God and Gab: The Second Sex by Michael Robbins

0143126644.01.LZZZZZZZNick Ripatrazone at The Millions:

Piety and profanity both require devotion. Graham Greene knew that. Greene was received into the Roman Catholic Church in 1926, and announced the conversion to his mother by writing “I expect you have guessed that I am embracing the Scarlet Woman.” He later identified as a “Catholic agnostic,” which complemented his baptismal name of Thomas, “after St. Thomas the doubter and not Thomas Aquinas.” He found God, but hadn’t lost his wit.

To say that Greene was a troubled Catholic would be the same as calling him a Catholic at all. He dramatized the obscenities of a Mexican whiskey priest hunted by Tomás Garrido Canabal’s Red Shirts in The Power and the Glory. In one scene, the priest has been jailed for possessing brandy, and shares a dark cell with others, including a couple having sex. A “pious” woman, jailed for having religious books, calls the copulating pair “brutes” and “animals.” She hates their “ugliness.” The whiskey priest knows better. He tells the woman to not believe that, “Because suddenly we discover that our sins have so much beauty.”

Michael Robbins is our contemporary poet laureate for beautiful sins of language. The New Republic calls Robbins a prankster. He rather reminds me of that whiskey priest, his lines by turns abrasive and aphoristic, but never apathetic.

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contemporary art from and about the Arab world

Schwabsky_underpressure_ba_imgBarry Schwabsky at The Nation:

“In the presence of the violent reality of war,” wrote Wallace Stevens in 1942, “consciousness takes the place of the imagination.” What the poet meant is that in wartime, “everything moves in the direction of reality, that is to say, in the direction of fact,” so that “we leave fact and come back to it, come back to what we wanted fact to be, not to what it was, not to what it has too often remained.” But this pressure toward fact and the desire to change, to remake the facts, become “overwhelming.”

It was difficult to look at “Here and Elsewhere,” the capacious exhibition of “contemporary art from and about the Arab world” (to quote from the press release), without sensing this overwhelming pressure toward fact. In part, this was a matter of timing. My first visit to the show, on view at the New Museum in New York City through September 28, took place the day after it opened on July 16, and just after Israel launched Operation Protective Edge, the attack on Gaza that killed more than 2,000 people, most of them civilians and many of them children, and left many more homeless. To encounter so much art so deeply marked by the fact of violence was hard to bear. My attention was relentlessly drawn to works like those from Lamia Joreige’s Objects of War series, begun in 1999, in which videos of people being interviewed about objects that evoke memories of the wars that ravaged Lebanon in the 1970s and ’80s are juxtaposed with the objects themselves. There was also Khaled Jarrar’s 2012 feature-length video Infiltrators, which follows the agonizing efforts of Palestinians to breach the wall separating Israel from the Occupied Territories—not to commit acts of terrorism, but mainly for economic and personal reasons.

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three years on Rikers

141006_r25549-320Jennifer Gonnerman at The New Yorker:

On the morning of July 28, 2010, Browder was awakened at around half past four. He was handcuffed to another inmate and herded onto a bus with a group of other prisoners. At the Bronx County Hall of Justice, they spent the day in a basement holding pen, each waiting for his chance to see a judge. When Browder’s turn came, an officer led him into a courtroom and he caught a glimpse of his mother in the spectator area. Seventy-four days had passed since his arrest. Already he had missed his seventeenth birthday, the end of his sophomore year, and half the summer.

A grand jury had voted to indict Browder. The criminal complaint alleged that he and his friend had robbed a Mexican immigrant named Roberto Bautista—pursuing him, pushing him against a fence, and taking his backpack. Bautista told the police that his backpack contained a credit card, a debit card, a digital camera, an iPod Touch, and seven hundred dollars. Browder was also accused of punching Bautista in the face.

A clerk read out the charges—“Robbery in the second degree and other crimes”—and asked Browder, “How do you plead, sir, guilty or not guilty?”

“Not guilty,” Browder said.

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Animal populations ‘have halved since 1970’

Daniel Cressey in Nature:

Living-planet-2-jayEarth’s wild vertebrate populations have dropped to one-half the size they were in the 1970s, according to an analysis of more than 3,000 species. Researchers from the WWF wildlife NGO, headquartered in Woking, UK, and the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) aggregated data on 10,380 populations from 3,038 species into an index of the health of the five main groups of vertebrates — mammals, birds, reptiles, fishes and amphibians. Set at 1 in 1970, this index has decreased to 0.48 (meaning by 52%) since then, according to their latest report.

This analysis is the tenth ‘Living Planet Index’ from WWF and ZSL, but this year’s has a crucial difference from previous editions in that it is weighted to take account of the make-up of biodiversity in different areas. Previous versions treated every species on which data were available equally, whereas the new edition attempts to correct for the size of each taxonomic group in a region, for example by giving more weight to fish than mammals in the palearctic. The last index – published in 2012 – showed a 28% decrease between 1970 and 2008. The bleaker picture painted by the 2014 edition comes both from real declines in newer data, and from the new weighting.

More here.

Does the history of philosophy matter?

Malcolm Thorndike Nicholson in Prospect:

Bertrand-RussellIf you study philosophy at a British or American university, your education in the history of the subject will likely be modest. Most universities teach Plato and Aristotle, skip about two millennia to Descartes, zip through the highlights of Empiricism and Rationalism to Kant, and then drop things again until the 20th Century, where Frege and Russell arise from the mists of the previous centuries’ Idealism and call for a new kind of philosophy rooted in formal logic, science, and “common sense.” In most of your courses, you will probably be able to do well without reading a single paper written before the 20th century.

This is peculiar because, unlike science, philosophy is not a discipline in which new theories bury the old ones. Philosophers can resurface long after we think we’ve disposed of them. This tendency of old ideas to rise from the dead has led to some of the most interesting work in contemporary philosophy. The revival of virtue ethics owes much to figures such as Philippa Foot, whose re-evaluation of Plato, Aristotle and Nietzsche, helped her form a theory of normative ethics that offered an alternative to the two dominant schools, Kantian ethics and consequentialism. In epistemology, the celebrated American philosopher, Wilfrid Sellars, was deeply influenced by his close reading of Kant and Hegel. (Sellars also famously stated “philosophy without the history of philosophy is, if not blind, at least dumb.”) David Lewis’s reading of St Anselm and Leibniz led him to thinking about so-called “possible worlds;” now one can’t sit in a metaphysics seminar without talking about them.

Scholarship aimed at increasing our awareness of the history of philosophy is, in short, a good thing. That was my optimistic viewpoint as I began reading Peter Adamson’s Classical Philosophy: a history of philosophy without any gaps (OUP, £20), the first instalment of a series of books aimed at producing a more comprehensive history of philosophy.

More here.

Steven Salaita: U. of I. destroyed my career

Steven Salaita in the Chicago Tribune:

ScreenHunter_823 Sep. 30 10.53Being recruited for a tenured faculty position at a major university is no small feat, nor should it be; tenure represents the pinnacle of an academic career. In my case, it involved numerous interviews with faculty in the American Indian studies program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and an intensive review of my scholarship, pedagogy and professional service.

I survived this rigorous review and, having accepted an employment offer from the dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, resigned my tenured position at another university and prepared my family to move. A few weeks before classes were to start, and without any warning, I received a letter from the chancellor, Phyllis Wise, informing me of my termination.

How did this happen?

In the weeks before my move, I watched in anguish as Israel killed more than 2,100 people during its recent bombing of Gaza, 70 percent of them civilians, according to the United Nations. Like so many others, I took to my Twitter account. I posted tweets critical of Israel's actions, mourning in particular the death of more than 500 of Gaza's children.

More here.

God, Darwin and My College Biology Class

David P. Barash in the New York Times:

ScreenHunter_822 Sep. 30 10.33It’s irresponsible to teach biology without evolution, and yet many students worry about reconciling their beliefs with evolutionary science. Just as many Americans don’t grasp the fact that evolution is not merely a “theory,” but the underpinning of all biological science, a substantial minority of my students are troubled to discover that their beliefs conflict with the course material.

Until recently, I had pretty much ignored such discomfort, assuming that it was their problem, not mine. Teaching biology without evolution would be like teaching chemistry without molecules, or physics without mass and energy. But instead of students’ growing more comfortable with the tension between evolution and religion over time, the opposite seems to have happened. Thus, The Talk.

There are a few ways to talk about evolution and religion, I begin. The least controversial is to suggest that they are in fact compatible. Stephen Jay Gould called them “nonoverlapping magisteria,” noma for short, with the former concerned with facts and the latter with values. He and I disagreed on this (in public and, at least once, rather loudly); he claimed I was aggressively forcing a painful and unnecessary choice, while I maintained that in his eagerness to be accommodating, he was misrepresenting both science and religion.

More here.

The shortest path, the traveling salesman, and an unsolved question

by Hari Balasubramanian

The Shortest Path

How does Google Maps figure out the best route between two addresses? The exact algorithm is known only to Google, but probably some variation of what is called the shortest path problem has to be solved [1]. Here is the simplified version. Suppose we have a network of nodes (cities, towns, landmarks etc.) connected by links (roads), and we know the time it takes to travel a particular link. Then what is the shortest path from a starting node A to a destination node D?

Graph

In the instance above, there are 4 nodes. The rectangles provide the link travel times. The B-C link takes 2 time units to travel; the A-D link takes 5; the C-D link takes 1; and so on. The five possible routes from A to D are: A-D; A-B-D; A-C-D; A-B-C-D; and A-C-B-D. The easily spotted shortest path is A-C-D, with a total length of 3. But what if a network has hundreds of nodes and links? It would be impossible to visually identify the shortest path. We would need an efficient algorithm. By that I mean an algorithm whose execution time on a computer stays reasonable even when the problem size – the number of nodes or links in the network – gets bigger.

In 1959, Edsger Djikstra published just such an algorithm. Djikstra's Algorithm doesn't simply look for all possible routes between the start and destination nodes and then choose the shortest. That kind of brute-force approach wouldn't work, given how dramatically the number of possible routes increases even with a slight increase in network size. Instead, Djikstra's Algorithm progressively explores the network in a simple yet intelligent way. It begins with the start node A, looks at all its immediate neighbors, then moves on to the closest neighbor, and from there updates travel times to all as yet unvisited nodes if new and shorter routes are discovered. I am fudging important details here, but this basic procedure of moving from a node to its nearest neighbor and updating travel times is repeated deeper and deeper in the network until the shortest path to the destination is confirmed. Wikipedia has a good animation illustrating this.

How fast does the algorithm run? Let's say there are V nodes. Then, in the worst case, Djikstra's Algorithm will take in the order of V x V steps to compute the optimal path. An algorithm like this that grows polynomially with the problem size is something we will call efficient (of course lower order polynomials, such as the square function, are preferable; V raised to the power 50 wouldn't be helpful at all). So a 10-node problem might take around 100 steps; a 1000-node problem will take 1000000 steps. This increase is something a modern day computer can easily handle. The algorithm might do much better in most instances, but the worst case is commonly used as a conservative measure of efficiency. There are faster variations of Djikstra's Algorithm, but for simplicity we'll stick to the original.

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Monday Poem

Early Autumn Surf

…… it’s still

the birds have gone 092714-the yard east 01
knowing it’s time

but today is an anomalous summer day
which, breaking protocol,
has oozed into early fall
with temperate trappings
lulling me with spacious softness
and late brilliance,
being the last echo of July,
the final peal of August’s bell
expanding as I surf
down the hump of its luxurious waveform
under the comfort of its breaking curl
.

by Jim Culleny
9/27/14, 2:45

Photo and poem, shot
and jotted together

Heaven and Earth

by Brooks Riley

CapybarasGo on, admit it. You’ve always wanted to come back as a capybara.

Why not? There are worst entities for a come-back kid when its mortal coil is taken up again. As a capybara you would live in a small community of peaceful vegans, free to join the party or to wander off on your own without being ostracized. You’d enjoy communal living with all the advantages, including a swimming hole in the vicinity. Your leader would be the biggest male, not a testosterone-driven despot intent on hoarding all the females for himself, but a gentle giant who shares. He might get first choice, but there’s plenty enough to go around. If the kids got on your nerves, allomothers would take over for a while.

The real question is, why would you want to come back at all?

Hope is like a birthmark no one can see: Everyone has one, and it doesn’t go away. It all starts with hoping to inhale your first breath, and progresses to hoping your mother will pick you up when you cry. It ends with hoping there’s something to look forward to when you die—call it heaven, call it oblivion. As the hopes in this life diminish, they get transferred to the other side, even if there’s no there there, as Gertrude Stein once said of Oakland, California.

The problem is that our notions of heaven are so pathetically limited. Why would I want to sit on a cloud playing a harp? If I wanted to play a harp, I’d have tried it in this life. And what if I see my loved ones in that light at the end of the tunnel? What then? Do I embrace them over and over again? For men who dream of an endless supply of virgins, is heaven just a coitus repetitus? Let’s face it, nothing we can possibly imagine or wish about heaven can allay the inevitable tedium that would arise from a satisfaction repeated many times over. Our visions of heaven quickly expose themselves as visions of hell, adulterated by endless repetitions and endless time. Even Pope Benedict suggested as much.

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Israel, Gaza, and the stupidity of leaders

by Emrys Westacott

Like millions of other people, I found the recent Israel-Gaza conflict sickening and depressing. After fifty days of military exchanges from July 8 to August 26, over 2,000 Gazans had been killed of which, even according to Israeli government estimates, over half were civilians. Around 11,000 Gazans had been injured, and several hundred thousand had been displaced from their homes and needed emergency assistance. On the Israeli side, 62 soldiers and 6 civilians were killed, and around 1,300 were injured. To what end? Images

While it went on I read, watched and listened to dozens of interviews and debates about the conflict. These involved Israeli government ministers, leaders of Hamas (the governing party in Gaza), journalists, scholars and political analysts, some highly critical of the Israeli government, others defending its actions. Two things struck me about what I heard.

First, there was a great deal of repetition: “Israel has the same right as any other country to defend itself against attacks.” –”The people of Gaza have the right to resist occupation.” – “Israel is ultimately responsible for the conflict because they continue to impose intolerable living conditions on the Palestinians.” –”Hamas is responsible because they committed the first acts of violence.” –”Israel targets civilians in breach of basic moral principles and international law.” ­–”So does Hamas.” –”Hamas still won't recognize the right of Israel to exist.” –”Israel continues to undermine the possibility of a viable Palestinian state by constructing new settlements.” Listening to these debates is like being on a merry go round, going round in circles, seeing the same sights come and go; you hear the same points being made again and again in more or less the same order.

Second, the points made by the parties to the debates typically pass each other like skew lines, not quite engaging. Question: “Isn't the Israeli governments showing a callous disregard for the lives of Palestinian civilians?” Answer: “It's Hamas with their rockets that is targeting civilians. And why is Israel being singled out for special criticism when other countries also kill civilians when they're fighting a war?” Question: “Does Hamas accept the right of Israel to exist?” Answer: “The Israeli occupation of Palestine is illegal under international law.” So often, the answers don't engage with the questions. This aspect of the debates is most frustrating.

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Longing for Letters

by Mathangi Krishnamurthy

Tumblr_manixgHkQc1qhk04bo1_1280On July 15, 2013, after a hundred and sixty-three years of witnessing birth, death, revolution and marriage, the Indian telegraphic service sent out its last telegram. I felt a small sense of loss, but truth be told, the telegram was already a thing of the past to my communicative repertoire. In all my life, I had neither sent nor received a telegram. Also, with all my Hindi film infused understanding of the world, I assumed that all they ever brought was bad news. I would however be more than heartbroken if some day the postal service stopped sending letters.

The first letter I ever received was from my father. Truth be told, it was a postcard. He was away in faraway lands and had sent me a one-line missive with a picture of some Disneyland minion in Mickey Mouse costume, looking both avuncular and eerie. I remember feeling a distinct happiness at the sight of his handwriting, all beautiful, cursive, and grand. People wrote me letters for a large part of my life. My father, my grandfather, two cousins, friends that moved away, and friends in foreign lands. I have letters bearing dates right up until the nineties. I wrote back letters and in the process, accumulated beautiful pens, inkpots, and thick, fancy letter-writing paper. Also, for those who remember, I owned blotting paper; inspite of that, my hands were permanently ink-streaked. I always owned what used to be called a China pen even though it bore the brand name “Hero”. The need for good handwriting was drummed early into my head. Pages of pages of cursive writing have rendered permanent the callus on my middle finger.

Two things show up regularly on my reading list these days; one, the daily habits of artists, scientists, thinkers, and writers, and two, their prolific and thoughtful correspondence. As others have argued so forcefully, letter writing was for writers, not merely a distraction but a way to find some breathing space from their craft while also allowing them the possibility of re-infusing it with vigor and vitality. Through letters they made manifest their orientation towards life and the world, but also communicated and cleansed new ways of thinking about their craft. Writing about writing to empathetic interlocutors seems to also been also about finding community, and laying the foundations for a new world.

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Quaere, how much do we really see?

by Charlie Huenemann

2011041620110411_Molyneuxs questionHow much of the world do we actually experience? Of course, I'm not bemoaning the shortness of human life, or the narrow range of the visual spectrum, or the insensitivities of our skins and tongues. There's no doubt we're missing out on a lot. But within the world of our experience – how much of it do we in fact experience?

This is a big question always, but it was particularly big over the course of the 17th and 18th centuries. Some thinkers abided by the scholastic dictum – “there's nothing in the mind that isn't first presented by the senses” – which means that all of the content in our model of the world is gained through sensory experience. There is something very neat and tidy about this – nothing comes from nothing, and everything is accounted for.

Other philosophers found, as they carefully parsed their own sensory experience, that there was a lot less in it than they thought. We see patches of colors, not objects; we see sudden bright changes, and hear loud booms, and it is only with some mental effort that we combine them into a single event; we observe one change, and another, and we only come to think of the changes as causally related. The senses surely give us some data, these philosophers believed, but the mind is required to structure these data into a world. There is order in our experience that does not come from the senses.

The general debate became focused on a thought experiment raised by William Molyneux in a letter to John Locke (1693):

Suppose a Man born blind, and now adult, and taught by his touch to distinguish between a Cube, and a Sphere of the same metal, and nighly of the same bigness, so as to tell, when he felt one and t'other; which is the Cube, which the Sphere. Suppose then the Cube and Sphere placed on a Table, and the Blind Man to be made to see. Quaere, Whether by his sight, before he touch'd them, he could now distinguish, and tell, which is the Globe, which the Cube.

Those of us used to coordinating sight and touch must make some effort to imagine what it would be like to see a sphere and a cube for the first time, without already knowing from experience what each would feel like, were we to reach out and touch it. Without having had that experience, would it be obvious that one shape would feel sphere-y, and obvious that the other would feel cube-y?

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