A One-Way Trip to Mars? Many Would Sign Up

Natalie Angier in The New York Times:

Curiosity-rover-28-months-on-mars-1418070845861-master495When Seth Shostak, an astronomer who scans the cosmos for signs of extraterrestrial intelligence, asks middle school students how many of them want to go to Mars, all hands shoot up. When he asks how many would rather design robots that go to Mars, most hands drop back to their desks. And when he asks general audiences how many would go to Mars even if it meant dying a few weeks after arriving, he invariably finds volunteers in the crowd. “I kid you not,” said Dr. Shostak, the director of the Center for SETI Research. “People are willing to risk everything just to see Mars, to walk on the surface of our little ruddy buddy.” His experience accords with what many say is a distinct surge in public enthusiasm for space travel generally, and a manned mission to Mars in particular. Or make that a human mission: Women, too, are wholly on board. “I would totally love to go to Mars,” said Pamela A. Melroy, a former NASA astronaut who piloted two space shuttle missions and commanded a third.

More here. (Note: Do look at the amazing pictures in the accompanying interactive feature)

Teju Cole in Conversation with Aleksandar Hemon


Over at Bomb magazine (photo by Teju Cole):

Aleksandr Hemon I’ve always found the insistent distinction between fiction and nonfiction in Anglo-American writing very annoying, indeed troubling. For one thing, it implies that nonfiction is all the stuff outside of fiction, or the other way around, the yin and yang of writing. Another problem: it marks a text in terms of its relation to “truth,” a category that is presumably self-evident and therefore stable. But narration cannot contain stable truth, because it unfolds, and it does so before the narrator in one way, and before the listener/reader in another way. Narration is creation of truth, which is to say that truth does not precede it.

In Bosnian, there are no words that are equivalent to “fiction” and “nonfiction,” or that convey the distinction between them. This is not to say that there is no truth or falsehood. Rather, the stress is on storytelling. The closest translation of nonfiction would really be “true stories.”

You declare Every Day Is for the Thief a work of fiction. Why?

Teju Cole I made a sideways move from art history into writing, and I think this, in part, is why I also find the stern distinction between fiction and nonfiction odd. It’s not at all a natural way of splitting up narrated experience, just as we don’t go around the museum looking for fictional or nonfictional paintings. Painters know that everything is a combination of what’s observed, what’s imagined, what’s overheard, and what’s been done before. Is Monet a nonfiction painter and Ingres a fiction painter? It’s the least illuminating thing we could ask about their works. Some lean more heavily on what’s seen, some more on what’s imagined, but all draw on various sources.

Writers know this too, but I think they knew it a lot better before the market took such a hold. Would Miguel de Cervantes have considered himself a writer of fiction? Would François Rabelais? Would Robert Burton consider his activity (let’s telescope the eras here) essentially dissimilar to Rabelais’s? They all pretty much understood themselves to be spinning narratives out of whatever was at hand. And let’s not even get into Daniel Defoe, who played devious games with the emerging genres.

More here.

Monday Poem

Winter Solstice With J. Kepler
we're deeply in—

in as deeply as we get
before we spin again
round an ellipse's rim
to a more congenial spot
for blood and breath

what the astronomical
survival odds (our
outer limits) are
who knows?

for time is short
by last report

listening now to ersatz jazz
I change Pandora's voice,
I move on, linking
new music to my thinking
by simply clicking
(because of what our
technos know

which is obviously permanent
and, like serious snow,
is sticking)

in this marvelous,
magnetic, angular hour
when sun and earth
seek a new relation,
and we anticipate
the max benefits
that will be here
in half a year

(as they will not be
for globe-mates in the
southern hemisphere)

I think there will be foxglove
and hydrangea when
Kepler''s laws begin to whirl us
back again

by Jim Culleny



For Agha Ashraf Ali

You light a candle
Carp the darkness

With your usual flourish
Debone a carp

Add a pinch of salt
In your carpeted kitchen

Discourse on the next course
To scrape or not the fish head,

Gaadkalley: Honorific.
You offer a scrap of history

Bestowed once by the people
On the Big Crap who betrayed them

We seize the head
Before the diem carpe us

And raise our glass
To the disappeared carpenters

Of Kashmir
A parched paradise

By Rafiq Kathwari, whose first book of poems is forthcoming in April 2015 from Doire Press, Ireland. More work here.

Kazuo Ishiguro: how I wrote The Remains of the Day in four weeks

Kazuo Ishiguro in The Guardian:

ScreenHunter_933 Dec. 29 00.23Many people have to work long hours. When it comes to the writing of novels, however, the consensus seems to be that after four hours or so of continuous writing, diminishing returns set in. I’d always more or less gone along with this view, but as the summer of 1987 approached I became convinced a drastic approach was needed. Lorna, my wife, agreed.

Until that point, since giving up the day job five years earlier, I’d managed reasonably well to maintain a steady rhythm of work and productivity. But my first flurry of public success following my second novel had brought with it many distractions. Potentially career-enhancing proposals, dinner and party invitations, alluring foreign trips and mountains of mail had all but put an end to my “proper” work. I’d written an opening chapter to a new novel the previous summer, but now, almost a year later, I was no further forward.

So Lorna and I came up with a plan. I would, for a four-week period, ruthlessly clear my diary and go on what we somewhat mysteriously called a “Crash”. During the Crash, I would do nothing but write from 9am to 10.30pm, Monday through Saturday. I’d get one hour off for lunch and two for dinner. I’d not see, let alone answer, any mail, and would not go near the phone. No one would come to the house. Lorna, despite her own busy schedule, would for this period do my share of the cooking and housework. In this way, so we hoped, I’d not only complete more work quantitively, but reach a mental state in which my fictional world was more real to me than the actual one.

More here.

What We Talk about When We Talk about Holes

Evelyn Lamb in Scientific American:

ScreenHunter_932 Dec. 28 19.54For Halloween, I wrote about a very scary topic: higher homotopy groups.Homotopy is an idea in topology, the field of math concerned with properties of shapes that stay the same no matter how you squish or stretch them, as long as you don’t tear them or glue things together. Both homotopy groups and the somewhat related homology groups are different ways to describe the topology of shapes using algebra. In my post, I said that homology detects “holes” of different dimensions. But, as one commenter asked, what do I mean by holes of different dimensions?

Good question! I deliberately used “hole” as a wiggle word because there isn’t a real mathematical definition of hole. But here’s my short answer that is also the reason I’m not an algebraic topologist. If you can put it on a necklace, it has a one-dimensional hole. If you can fill it with toothpaste, it has a two-dimensional hole. For holes of higher dimensions, you’re on your own.

That answer isn’t very satisfying. Is there a better way to describe holes? I talked with some of my topologist friends and discovered two things: topologists don’t all agree on what a hole is, and it’s fun and interesting to think about different interpretations of a word whose mathematical definition isn’t completely settled. I think my larger conclusion, in the spirit of the season, is that holes are like Santa Claus: the true meaning is in your heart. So let’s look into our hearts and think about what holes are.

More here.

Rebecca Solnit: The Age of Capitalism is over

Rebecca Solnit in Salon:

Shutterstock_66271057-620x412It was the most thrilling bureaucratic document I’ve ever seen for just one reason: it was dated the 21st day of the month of Thermidor in the Year Six. Written in sepia ink on heavy paper, it recorded an ordinary land auction in France in what we would call the late summer of 1798. But the extraordinary date signaled that it was created when the French Revolution was still the overarching reality of everyday life and such fundamentals as the distribution of power and the nature of government had been reborn in astonishing ways. The new calendar that renamed 1792 as Year One had, after all, been created to start society all over again.

In that little junk shop on a quiet street in San Francisco, I held a relic from one of the great upheavals of the last millennium. It made me think of a remarkable statement the great feminist fantasy writer Ursula K. Le Guin had made only a few weeks earlier. In the course of a speech she gave while accepting a book award she noted, “We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings.”

That document I held was written only a few years after the French had gotten over the idea that the divine right of kings was an inescapable reality. The revolutionaries had executed their king for his crimes and were then trying out other forms of government. It’s popular to say that the experiment failed, but that’s too narrow an interpretation. France never again regressed to an absolutist monarchy and its experiments inspired other liberatory movements around the world (while terrifying monarchs and aristocrats everywhere).

Americans are skilled at that combination of complacency and despair that assumes things cannot change and that we, the people, do not have the power to change them. Yet you have to be abysmally ignorant of history, as well as of current events, not to see that our country and our world have always been changing, are in the midst of great and terrible changes, and are occasionally changed through the power of the popular will and idealistic movements. As it happens, the planet’s changing climate now demands that we summon up the energy to leave behind the Age of Fossil Fuel (and maybe with it some portion of the Age of Capitalism as well).

More here.

How the invasion of Panama birthed the quagmire in Iraq

Greg Grandin in Salon:

NoriegaOperation Just Cause was carried out unilaterally, sanctioned neither by the United Nations nor the Organization of American States (OAS). In addition, the invasion was the first post-Cold War military operation justified in the name of democracy — “militant democracy,” as George Will approvingly called what the Pentagon would unilaterally install in Panama.

The campaign to capture Noriega, however, didn’t start with such grand ambitions. For years, as Saddam Hussein had been Washington’s man in Iraq, so Noriega was a CIA asset and Washington ally in Panama. He was a key player in the shadowy network of anti-communists, tyrants, and drug runners that made up what would become Iran-Contra. That, in case you’ve forgotten, was a conspiracy involving President Ronald Reagan’s National Security Council to sell high-tech missiles to the Ayatollahs in Iran and then divert their payments to support anti-communist rebels in Nicaragua in order to destabilize the Sandinista government there. Noriega’s usefulness to Washington came to an end in 1986, after journalist Seymour Hersh published an investigation in the New York Times linking him to drug trafficking. It turned out that the Panamanian autocrat had been working both sides. He was “our man,” but apparently was also passing on intelligence about us to Cuba.

Still, when George H.W. Bush was inaugurated president in January 1989, Panama was not high on his foreign policy agenda. Referring to the process by which Noriega, in less than a year, would become America’s most wanted autocrat, Bush’s National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft said: “I can’t really describe the course of events that led us this way… Noriega, was he running drugs and stuff? Sure, but so were a lot of other people. Was he thumbing his nose at the United States? Yeah, yeah.”

Read the full article here.

The truth about free will: Does it actually exist? Daniel Dennett explains

David Edmunds and Nigel Warburton in Salon:

Matrix_pills2David Edmonds: One way to exercise my freedom would be to act unpredictably, perhaps not to have a typical introduction to a “Philosophy Bites” interview, or to cut it abruptly short mid-sentence. That’s the view of the famous philosopher and cognitive scientist, Daniel Dennett. He also believes that humans can have free will, even if the world is determinist, in other words, governed by causal laws, and he…

Nigel Warburton: The topic we’re focusing on is “Free Will Worth Wanting.” That seems a strange way in to free will. Usually, the free will debate is over whether we have free will, not whether we want it, or whether it’s worth wanting. How did you come at it from this point of view?

Daniel Dennett: I came to realize that many of the issues that philosophers love to talk about in the free will debates were irrelevant to anything important. There’s a bait-and-switch that goes on. I don’t think any topic is more anxiety provoking, or more genuinely interesting to everyday people, than free will But then philosophers replace the interesting issues with technical, metaphysical issues. Who cares? We can define lots of varieties of free will that you can’t have, or that are inconsistent with determinism. But so what? The question is, ‘Should you regret, or would you regret not having free will?’ Yes. Are there many senses of free will? Yes. Philosophers have tended to concentrate on varieties that are perhaps more tractable by their methods, but they’re not important.

More here.

Anxiety nation: why are so many of us so ill at ease?

Sophie Mcbain in New Statesman:

AnxietyFor a condition that affects so many of us, there is very little agreement about what anxiety actually is. Is it a physiological condition, best treated with medication, or psychological – the product of repressed trauma, as a Freudian might suggest? Is it a cultural construct, a reaction to today’s anomic society, or a more fundamental spiritual and philosophical reflection of what it means to be human? For most sufferers, the most pressing concern is whether drugs work, and if therapy is a good idea. Our modern, medical definition of anxiety could be traced back to 1980 and the publication of the third edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-III), the doctor’s and psychiatrist’s bible for identifying mental illness. The authors of DSM-III suggested that, according to their new criteria, between 2 and 4 per cent of the population would have an anxiety disorder. But three decades on, the America’s State of Mind Report showed that one in every six people in the United States suffers from anxiety.

The most recent nationwide survey, which took place in 2007, found that three million people in the UK have an anxiety disorder. About 7 per cent of UK adults are on antidepressants (often prescribed for anxiety, too) and one in seven will take benzodiazepines such as Xanax in any one year. Mental health charities warn that our anxiety levels are creeping even higher; they often blame our “switched-on” modern culture for this, or the financial crisis and the long recession that followed it. And yet, it is difficult to quantify whether it is our feelings of anxiety that have changed, or whether it’s just our perception of those feelings that is different: are we increasingly viewing ordinary human emotions as marks of mental illness?

More here.