Jihad’s fatal attraction

Scott Atran in The Guardian:

ScreenHunter_786 Sep. 05 12.23In a speech on Wednesday, President Obama said: “Whatever these murderers think they will achieve by murdering innocents like Steven [Sotloff], they have already failed.”

Not so, says the evidence. Publicity, Islamic State (Isis) knows, is the oxygen of terrorism. And publicity it has received in spades with the beheadings of two American journalists. So an organisation that hardly anyone knew existed only a few months ago is now the world’s, and particularly the west’s, premier political and public concern, eclipsing Iran’s nuclear programme and Russia’s actions in Ukraine.

The aim of Isis’s strikingly gruesome spectacle is to terrorise and fascinate public sentiment. Especially in the media-driven political theatre of western liberal democracies, public fury reliably leads to precipitate political reaction. Like the kind of heedless, scatter-gun approach pursued by America and Britain that transformed al-Qaida from a small band of fairly well-educated violent extremists into a youthful social movement that appeals to many thousands of disaffected Muslim immigrants in the western diaspora, and many more millions who are economically and politically frustrated back home.

Unlike al-Qaida, though, from which Isis was expelled earlier this year, Isis tolerates no compromise with other interpretations of Islam, much less with Islam’s duty to rule the world. In its view, America and Britain are too weak in the conviction of their ideas and ideals to ultimately matter. For the devoted actor, rightness of cause will always win against apparent material advantage as long as the cause has the minimal material means to endure.

Isis’s violence is far from being nihilistic – a charge usually levelled by those who are wishfully blind to the attraction of their foes. The moral worldview of the devoted actor is dominated by what Edmund Burke referred to as “the sublime”: a need for the “delightful terror” of a sense of power, destiny, a giving over to the ineffable and unknown.

More here.

The Harm Men Do Women in the Bronx

Cassie Rodenberg in Scientific American:

JohnBased on ethnographic fieldwork conducted while residing next to a crack house in El Barrio, New York, for almost five years, this article analyses how the social and economic marginalization of second- and third-generation Puerto Rican immigrants in the inner city has polarized violence and sexuality against women and children, both within the family and on the street. Traditional working-class patriarchy has been thrown into crisis by the restructuring of the global economy and the expansion of women’s rights. Unable to replicate the rural-based models of masculinity and family structure of their grandfathers’ generation, a growing cohort of marginalized men in the de-industrialized urban economy takes refuge in the drug economy and celebrates a misogynist, predatory street culture that normalizes gang rape, sexual conquest, and paternal abandonment. Marginalized men lash out against the women and children they can no longer support economically nor control patriarchally.¹

John’s girl, Diane, jumps into cars. She sits on a bucket seat ripped from a SUV. There, in its place left on the side of the road, she waits for men to drive by, stare, comment, gesture. Men like the punk rocker look, so she rips her tights, more than the day typically does, for show. She’s had a good run of not being raped, so she figures she’ll be fine. John sits on cardboard next to the bucket seat anticipating her return. Sometimes he get impatient and leaves to get food. As if staying would do anything. Her money buys them the crack and heroin, the rented room. These things, this discontent, come outs when she smokes crack. It becomes unreal that you do everything. But it is expected. It is the way things go.

More here.

3QD Science Prize Finalists 2014


FinalistScience2014The editors of 3QD have made their decision. The twenty semifinalists have been winnowed down to six, and three wildcard entries added. Thanks again to all the participants. Details of the prize can be found here.

On the right is a “trophy” logo that our finalists may choose to display on their own blogs.

So, here it is, the final list that I am sending to Frans B. M. de Waal, who will select the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd prize winners from these: (in alphabetical order by blog name here)

  1. 3 Quarks Daily: The Dictionary is not Literature
  2. Curious Meerkat: Eating Insects
  3. Eruptions: So, You Think Yellowstone Is About to Erupt
  4. Genotopia: On city life, the history of science, and the genetics of race
  5. Preposterous Universe: Why the Many-Worlds Formulation of Quantum Mechanics Is Probably Correct
  6. Science Sushi: Did Allergies Evolve To Save Your Life?
  7. Slate: Promiscuity Is Pragmatic
  8. The Loom: The Wisdom of (Little) Crowds
  9. The Philosopher's Beard: Love's Labours Lost: How Robots Will Transform Human Intimacy

We'll announce the three winners on September 22, 2014.

Good luck!


P.S. The editors of 3QD will not be making any comments on our deliberations, or the process by which we made our decision, other than to simply say that we picked what we thought were the best six posts out of the semifinalists, and added three others which we also liked.

What Jeff Koons has wrought

Eric Gibson in The New Criterion:

Koons34The Whitney Museum of American Art has mounted a Jeff Koons retrospective as the swansong in its uptown Breuer building before reopening in its new, Renzo Piano–designed space in Chelsea next spring.1Besides his stratospheric auction prices, Koons is famous for industrially produced pop imagery such as inflatable hearts and balloon dogs, all of it turned out on a large, sometimes gigantic scale in cheerful, candy-box colors and polished to a high, reflective sheen. According to the Whitney, it is his biggest exhibition ever, and they’ve certainly done him proud. Organized by the Whitney curator Scott Rothkopf, it displays some 150 works dating from the late 1970s to just last year, taking up more than three floors of gallery space.

If the scenario sounds familiar, it is. In 1980, prior to shutting down for a four-year renovation and expansion, the Museum of Modern Art gave over its entire building to a Picasso retrospective. The point was to go out with a bang—to affirm Picasso’s position as the most important artist of his time. The Whitney wants to go out with a bang in the same way, and has nominated Koons as its Picasso.

Why not? Koons burst on the scene in the 1980s, quickly taking his place alongside the other young art stars of the time. Yet among them, he alone has survived and thrived in the decades since.

More here.

Chimps Outplay Humans in Brain Games

Madhuvanthi Kannan in Scientific American:

65813FE3-358A-4AEF-BE579F3215984A46_articleIn a recent study by psychologists Colin Camerer and Tetsuro Matsuzawa, chimps and humans played a strategy game – and unexpectedly, the chimps outplayed the humans.

Chimps are a scientist’s favorite model to understand human brain and behavior. Chimp and human DNAs overlap by a whopping 99 percent, which makes us closer to chimps than horses to zebras. Yet at some point, we evolved differently. Our behavior and personalities, molded to some extent by our distinct societies, are strikingly different from that of our fellow primates. Chimps are aggressive and status-hungry within their hierarchical societies, knit around a dominant alpha male. We are, perhaps, a little less so. So the question arises whether competitive behavior is hard-wired in them.

In the present study, chimp pairs or human pairs contested in a two-player video game. Each player simply had to choose between left and right squares on a touch-screen panel, while being blind to their rival’s choice. Player A, for instance, won, each time their choices matched, and player B won, if their choices did not. The opponent’s choice was displayed after every selection, and payoffs in the form of apple cubes or money were dispensed to the winner.

In competitive games such as this, like in chess or poker, the players learn to guess their opponent’s moves based on the latter’s past choices, and adjust their own strategy at every step in order to win. An ideal game, eventually, develops a certain pattern. Using a set of math equations, described by game theory, it is easy to predict this pattern on paper. When the players are each making the most strategic choices, the game hovers around what is called an ‘equilibrium’ state.

In Camerer’s experiment, it turned out that chimps played a near-ideal game, as their choices leaned closer to game theory equilibrium. Whereas, when humans played, their choices drifted farther off from theoretical predictions.

More here.

Thucydides’ moral chaos

A87bd478-337a-11e4_1092075hPeter Thonemann at the Times Literary Supplement:

Thucydides goes on to give a sombre and terrifying account of the “violent teachings” of civil war: moral chaos, the abuse of political language, the collapse of due legal process. Corcyra, insignificant though it was in the grand scheme of things, turns out to reveal certain dark and permanent truths about human nature.

But what exactly are these truths? Thucydides does not say. Indeed, his analysis of the “meaning” of the Corcyrean civil war is so complex and allusive that one puzzled ancient reader felt compelled to draft his own summary of what he understood Thucydides’ argument about human nature to be. His – certainly wrong-headed – analysis is preserved in all our medieval manuscripts of Thucydides:

“And with civic life at that time so cast into commotion, human nature, naturally prone as it is to injustice and law-breaking, cheerfully revealed itself to be powerless over its passions, too strong for justice, and hostile to all superiority.”

Whatever Thucydides meant to say about human nature, it was certainly not that: he did not believe in the innate viciousness of the human soul. But one can sympathize with this anonymous reader.

more here.

kathy acker’s emails

Article_krausChris Kraus at The Believer:

In the years succeeding her death at age fifty, Acker’s work has been the subject of a documentary film, a symposium, and several scholarly works. Attention has mostly been focused on her as an exemplar of the “transgressive” genre of writing, performance, and art popular in the 1980s. Promoting herself more as a rock star than as a writer, she appears in numerous studio portraits taken during that era posed as a precocious child whore in a Victorian boudoir, displaying her extravagant tattoos and bulked-up biceps. Although she’d been actively writing and publishing in the East and West Coast art world and poetry communities since the early 1970s, it was not until the mid-’80s that her work was presented commercially. When her inventive, aggressive bricolage novel Blood and Guts in High School was reissued by Picador in London in 1984, she was hailed as “the high priestess of punk,” an avatar of resistance to the grim resignation of the Bush/Thatcher era. As her image solidified, so did her writing. While the writings that built Acker’s reputation are insouciant samplings of pornography, plagiarized classics, confessional memoir, and political satire, she began taking herself even more seriously than her fans and critics did. From the late ’80s onward, she adopted a somber high-modernist style, identifying herself as a postmodern poète maudit.

more here.

Whatever Happened to St. Petersburg?

ImagesGreg Afinogenov at Bookforum:

St. Petersburg used to be a familiar place for Russians and non-Russians alike. It is so recognizable—even clichéd—as a setting for the high drama and intrigue of nineteenth-century Russian literary classics that one recent Russian novel features a first-person shooter videogame called Dostoevsky’s Petersburg. As Petrograd, we know it as the cradle of the Revolution, the backdrop for Eisenstein; as Leningrad, the tale of its suffering during the murderous Siege of Leningrad by Nazi and Finnish troops in 1941-44 is part of the common tragic legacy of World War II.

But there, after the war, the familiarity ends. Since World War II, countless Seinfelds,Zazies, and London Fields have made the world’s other great literary and cinematic metropolises as recognizable at their most humdrum and unglamorous as they are at their glitziest. Meanwhile, the postwar urban life of St. Petersburg has almost disappeared from the horizon not just of European or global but also of Russian culture. Ask a Russian to name a work set in postwar Petersburg or Leningrad and you will likely hear only three answers: the wistful 1979 romantic comedy Autumn Marathon, the grim 1996 revenge thriller Brother, and the 2000s cops-and-robbers TV serial Bandit Petersburg. A non-Russian could hardly be expected to produce even one.

more here.

Thursday Poem

Daydream #598

The mountain pass is notorious.
On the left the tangles of the pine trees
and on the right the planets and stars.
Sometimes I was overtaken, sometimes I had to brake
black-brown clouds charged along ahead of me
as though I should hurry but I was in no hurry.
I drove upwards like in a children’s song.
One sharp bend to go and then the highest point of the pass –
a few seconds as light as a skeleton
before everything goes tearing downhill.
I accelerated a bit and held my breath ready
when suddenly I was overcome
by a deep sleep, as clammy as thick fog.
All sound was silenced.
I quickly threw her into second and forced,
though I’d existed a moment ago,
like a velvet drill in heavenly matter.
Whether I was on my way home, or alone
or accompanied – I’ve clean forgotten.
Apart from that it was the depth of winter
and then that road, that hateful road
that just kept on climbing and climbing
there is no end to it.

by Alfred Schaffer
From: Mens Dier Ding

Publisher: De Bezige Bij, Amsterdam, 2014
Translation: Michele Hutchinson

The new Luddites: why former digital prophets are turning against tech

Bryan Appleyard in New Statesman:

LudditesVery few of us can be sure that our jobs will not, in the near future, be done by machines. We know about cars built by robots, cashpoints replacing bank tellers, ticket dispensers replacing train staff, self-service checkouts replacing supermarket staff, tele­phone operators replaced by “call trees”, and so on. But this is small stuff compared with what might happen next.

Nursing may be done by robots, delivery men replaced by drones, GPs replaced by artificially “intelligent” diagnosers and health-sensing skin patches, back-room grunt work in law offices done by clerical automatons and remote teaching conducted by computers. In fact, it is quite hard to think of a job that cannot be partly or fully automated. And technology is a classless wrecking ball – the old blue-collar jobs have been disappearing for years; now they are being followed by white-collar ones. Ah, you may say, but human beings will always be better. This misses the point. It does not matter whether the new machines never achieve full human-like consciousness, or even real intelligence, they can almost certainly achieve just enough to do your job – not as well as you, perhaps, but much, much more cheaply. To modernise John Ruskin, “There is hardly anything in the world that some robot cannot make a little worse and sell a little cheaper, and the people who consider price only are this robot’s lawful prey.”

More here.

What is “fairness”?

Danah Boyd on Medium:

5302562701_0b46f0cc81_mConsider, for example, what’s happening with policing practices, especially as computational systems allow precincts to distribute their officers “fairly.” In many jurisdictions, more officers are placed into areas that are deemed “high risk.” This is deemed to be appropriate at a societal level. And yet, people don’t think about the incentive structures of policing, especially in communities where the law is expected to clear so many warrants and do so many arrests per month. When they’re stationed in algorithmically determined “high risk” communities, they arrest in those communities, thereby reinforcing the algorithms’ assumptions.

Addressing modern day redlining equivalents isn’t enough. Statistically, if your family members are engaged in criminal activities, there’s a high probability that you will too. Is it fair to profile and target individuals based on their networks if it will make law enforcement more efficient?

Increasingly, tech folks are participating in the instantiation of fairness in our society. Not only do they produce the algorithms that score people and unevenly distribute scarce resources, but the fetishization of “personalization” and the increasingly common practice of “curation” are, in effect, arbiters of fairness.

The most important thing that we all need to recognize is that how fairness is instantiated significantly affects the very architecture of our society. I regularly come back to a quote by Alistair Croll:

Our social safety net is woven on uncertainty. We have welfare, insurance, and other institutions precisely because we can’t tell what’s going to happen — so we amortize that risk across shared resources. The better we are at predicting the future, the less we’ll be willing to share our fates with others. And the more those predictions look like facts, the more justice looks like thoughtcrime.

Read the rest here.

Making the best of digital tech

Sonya Kurzweil in KurzweilAI:

Munchery-promo-oneIn what follows, I offer five tips on parenting and digital media from my experience of being a mom and child psychologist. In general, I am optimistic. Perhaps it is easier for me to be positive than for some people. I may have a bias as I am also a wife to a pretty well known inventor of computer technologies and have had a front row seat to many extraordinary computer inventions over nearly 40 years and counting. I think it is fair to say: I am familiar with the territories of which I speak.

Tip: Take advantage of helpful apps | Apps can free up time so you have more of it to spend with your kids. On a pragmatic note, there are apps that can help free up your time so that you have more of it to spend with your kids or for refueling yourself. For example, one app that is popular in my son’s household and among his friends enables parents to select menus by the week online. Once the selection is made, the service delivers all the ingredients for each meal, measured out and ready to cook. No daily figuring, shopping, or measuring. It’s all prepared. That could give you an hour or two extra each day.

(Plated | What is Plated? Fresh ingredients and gourmet recipes delivered to your door. You Choose. We Shop. You Cook. At Plated we offer 5 chef designed recipes every week. You choose which you’d like to cook and we deliver all the ingredients to your doorstep. We take the hassle out of grocery shopping and meal planning, giving you back time spent in the kitchen. Just cook and enjoy!)

More here.

3QD Science Prize Semifinalists 2014

The voting round of our science prize (details here) is over. Thanks to the nominators and the voters for participating.

So here they are, the top 20, in descending order from the most voted-for:

  1. 2014ScienceSemiEruptions: So, You Think Yellowstone Is About to Erupt
  2. Neurobabble: Parasitic wasps vs. zombie cockroaches
  3. 3 Quarks Daily: The Dictionary is not Literature
  4. Neurobabble: Technology and the adolescent brain
  5. The Philosopher's Beard: Love's Labours Lost: How Robots Will Transform Human Intimacy
  6. Things We Don't Know: Squid Lady Parts
  7. BBC: The quest to save the Hollywood bison
  8. Curious Meerkat: Eating Insects
  9. An Evolutionist's Perspective: The Woes of Capitalism: Kinship, Sociality and Economy
  10. Genotopia: On city life, the history of science, and the genetics of race
  11. Slate: Promiscuity Is Pragmatic
  12. Napoli Unplugged: Vesuvius at Night
  13. Science Explained: Knock, Knock Who’s there?
  14. Comparatively Psyched: The Robin's Song
  15. Inkfish: Scientists Ask Why There Are So Many Freaking Huge Ants
  16. Tree Town Chemistry: How One Scientist Broke in to Professional Craft Brewing
  17. Ecology & Evolution: And to the victor the spoiled
  18. Aeon: Cows Might Fly
  19. Ecology & Evolution: What’s it like to study Zoology?
  20. Psychology Today: Love, Love Medulla: The Neuroscience of Beatlemania

The editors of 3 Quarks Daily will now pick the top six entries from these, and after possibly adding up to three “wildcard” entries, will send that list of finalists to Frans de Waal for final judging. We will post the shortlist of finalists here on this Friday.

detoxifying Philip Larkin

Noel_08_14Jeremy Noel-Tod at Literary Review:

Like the Thatcherite Tories he supported in his later years, Philip Larkin, who died in 1985, has now undergone two decades of detoxification. The contamination was quick and calamitous. Anthony Thwaite's volume of Selected Letters in 1992 and Andrew Motion's biography in 1993 both provided ready evidence that Britain's favourite postwar poet had been – as well as a charming and witty personal intimate – a pornography-hoarding philanderer and casual racist. As he signed off in prophetic mockery to one correspondent: 'Ooh, Larkin, I'm sorry to find you holding these views.'

James Booth recently retired from the English department at the University of Hull, where Larkin worked for most of his life as librarian. Since the 1990s Booth has been one of the poet's most diligent posthumous restorers. A leading figure in the Philip Larkin Society and its neatly named magazine, About Larkin, he has written two previous books about the poet. Philip Larkin: Life, Art and Love, evidently a magnum opus, sets out to supersede Motion's Philip Larkin: A Writer's Life with the benefit of further research. 'Motion', indeed, pops up throughout to be twitted on various points of fact, such as whether Larkin's father really owned a twelve-inch mantelpiece statue of the Führer which performed a Nazi salute at the touch of a button (Sydney Larkin's sitting-room Hitler was, it seems, significantly littler, with no button, and possibly only one ball).

more here.

Jeff Koons and Kara Walker: blissful idiocy v. subtlety

Schwabsky_hopeagainsthope_1_ba_imgBarry Schwabsky at The Nation:

What first comes to mind when I think of Jeff Koons isn’t his art—not even his most memorable works, such as the stainless steel Rabbit of 1986 or the vast, flowery Puppy of 1992—but rather a cameo he had in a movie. In Gus Van Sant’s 2008 biopic Milk, Koons briefly graced the big screen in the role of Art Agnos, the progressive politician (and future mayor of San Francisco) who defeated Harvey Milk in the 1976 Democratic primary for a position in the California State Assembly. After a debate, Agnos offers his opponent a bit of advice: relentless criticism of the status quo isn’t enough to win the public over. Unless you can offer constructive programs to improve people’s lives, you’re just a downer, Agnos says: “You gotta to give ‘em a reason for optimism.” People need hope.

While the admonition seems to be faithful to the exchange reported by Milk’s biographer Randy Shilts, it might easily have been Koons’s own motto. When he began to attract attention in the early 1980s, the new watchword for art was “critique”; every up-to-date young artist was poring over books like The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture (1983), edited by Hal Foster. Koons was one of the few artists of the time who wasn’t explicitly “anti” anything (except, as he has said, “anti-judgment”). What Foster called “a postmodernism of resistance”—one that “seeks to question rather than exploit cultural codes,” as he put it—was, for Koons, completely beside the point.

more here.

the revival of storytelling

140908_r25416-320James Wood at The New Yorker:

As the novel’s cultural centrality dims, so storytelling—J. K. Rowling’s magical Owl of Minerva, equipped for a thousand tricks and turns—flies up and fills the air. Meaning is a bit of a bore, but storytelling is alive. The novel form can be difficult, cumbrously serious; storytelling is all pleasure, fantastical in its fertility, its ceaseless inventiveness. Easy to consume, too, because it excites hunger while simultaneously satisfying it: we continuously want more. The novel now aspires to the regality of the boxed DVD set: the throne is a game of them. And the purer the storytelling the better—where purity is the embrace of sheer occurrence, unburdened by deeper meaning. Publishers, readers, booksellers, even critics, acclaim the novel that one can deliciously sink into, forget oneself in, the novel that returns us to the innocence of childhood or the dream of the cartoon, the novel of a thousand confections and no unwanted significance. What becomes harder to find, and lonelier to defend, is the idea of the novel as—in Ford Madox Ford’s words—a “medium of profoundly serious investigation into the human case.”

David Mitchell is a superb storyteller. He has an extraordinary facility with narrative: he can get a narrative rolling along faster than most writers, so that it is filled with its own mobile life. You feel that he can do anything he wants, in a variety of modes, and still convince.

more here.

In the seventeen years between 1992 and 2009, the Russian population declined by almost seven million people, or nearly 5 percent—a rate of loss unheard of in Europe since World War II

Masha Gessen in the New York Review of Books:

ScreenHunter_783 Sep. 03 15.11Sometime in 1993, after several trips to Russia, I noticed something bizarre and disturbing: people kept dying. I was used to losing friends to AIDS in the United States, but this was different. People in Russia were dying suddenly and violently, and their own friends and colleagues did not find these deaths shocking. Upon arriving in Moscow I called a friend with whom I had become close over the course of a year. “Vadim is no more,” said his father, who picked up the phone. “He drowned.” I showed up for a meeting with a newspaper reporter to have the receptionist say, “But he is dead, don’t you know?” I didn’t. I’d seen the man a week earlier; he was thirty and apparently healthy. The receptionist seemed to think I was being dense. “A helicopter accident,” she finally said, in a tone that seemed to indicate I had no business being surprised.

The deaths kept piling up. People—men and women—were falling, or perhaps jumping, off trains and out of windows; asphyxiating in country houses with faulty wood stoves or in apartments with jammed front-door locks; getting hit by cars that sped through quiet courtyards or plowed down groups of people on a sidewalk; drowning as a result of diving drunk into a lake or ignoring sea-storm warnings or for no apparent reason; poisoning themselves with too much alcohol, counterfeit alcohol, alcohol substitutes, or drugs; and, finally, dropping dead at absurdly early ages from heart attacks and strokes.

More here.

The argument for a hypersonic missile testing ban

Mark Gubrud in Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists:

640px-BrahMosHypersonic missiles fall into two distinct categories. In what is known as a boost-glide weapon, the hypersonic vehicle is first “boosted” on a ballistic trajectory, using a conventional rocket. It may cover considerable distance as it flies to high altitude, then falls back to Earth, gaining speed and finally, at some relatively low altitude, pulling into unpowered, aerodynamic, horizontal flight. After that, it glides at hypersonic speed toward its final destination.

Hypersonic cruise missiles, on the other hand, typically are launched to high speed using a small rocket, and then, after dropping the rocket, are powered by a supersonic combustion ram jet, or scramjet, for flight at five times the speed of sound (some 3,800 miles per hour) or greater.

The recent failed Chinese and American tests were of boost-glide systems; the X-51 WaveRider, which the US successfully tested last year after a string of failures, is an example of the scramjet cruise missile. The boost-glide test failures were probably caused by issues with booster rockets rather than with the hypersonic gliders themselves. Regardless, these systems didn't work, demonstrating that both boost-glide and powered hypersonic cruise missiles require testing. Such tests are easily observable from space and via radar and signals intelligence gathering (not to mention old-fashioned human spying). A test moratorium would throw a huge obstacle in the path of hypersonic programs, and a permanent test ban would make it clear that they aren’t going anywhere. And that would be a good thing, because where they are going is nowhere good.

More here.

Thomas Cromwell: Henry VIII’s faithful servant

Diarmaid MacCulloch in The Guardian:

Cromwell-011Thomas Cromwell's ghost must be blessing Hilary Mantel for her two novels so far, and one more to come, restoring him to a life by turns engaging and intimidating. Equally, the theatre versions of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies have been triumphs, enriching Mantel's artistry with Ben Miles's extraordinary performance as Cromwell. Each play puts Miles on stage for nearly three hours, and he exhibits as much energy as the original Tudor statesman did in 10 years of public service to Henry VIII. It's a marvellous re-creation of an all-seeing polymath: he is witty, reflective, affectionate and calculatingly brutal, always visible to the audience, if not to his fellow players.

This ingenious dramatic device of Mantel's plays precisely makes Cromwell present even when he isn't saying anything, and that is an effective way of conveying the peculiar nature of his vast surviving set of papers, now split between the National Archives and the British Library, with a clutch of strays elsewhere. The surprise of those manuscripts is that Cromwell himself is hardly there; the thousands on thousands of documents are his in‑tray, so sifting through them is like listening to the noise of suppliant voices pouring into his ears while he himself sits, silent, as in his famous black-clad portrait by Holbein, contemplating the babble of 16th-century Europe, and grasping one of those letters, tightly.

More here.