Damián Szifron’s ‘Wild Tales’ is a carnival of the polymorphously perverse

Klawans_lowerdepths_ba_img_0Stuart Klawans at The Nation:

Although it was shot in Argentina, partially bankrolled in Spain (by Pedro Almodóvar’s company), given its premiere at Cannes and then shortlisted for the Oscars, the true mark of the internationalism of Damián Szifron’s Wild Tales is that it bears the artistic stamp of Quentin Tarantino. Many other films destined for US art houses display comparably global credentials, but Wild Tales is exceptional for the brio with which it imitates a style that is already proudly imitative—and as accepted worldwide as the American Express card.

You will immediately recognize the genre-movie settings (a cheap roadside diner in the rain, a lonely stretch of mountain highway), the pop-archivist musical choices (Giorgio Moroder’sFlashdance soundtrack, Bobby Womack’s cover of “Fly Me to the Moon”), the frequent pauses to let you admire a graphic effect (an off-kilter close-up, a character framed by a window), and the teasing, discontinuous narrative (which gives you six stories for the price of your ticket).

Above all, note the ratio of laughter to mayhem, which remains high in Wild Tales despite the continually mounting pile of corpses. The body count is already incalculable by the end of the first story, which comes to a boomingly funny climax before Szifron even rolls the opening credits, with their spaghetti-western theme music.

more here.

A window on Chaucer’s cramped, scary, smelly world

Paul Strohm in The Spectator:

ScreenHunter_953 Jan. 21 19.20Proust had his cork-lined bedroom; Emily Dickinson her Amherst hidey-hole; Mark Twain a gazebo with magnificent views of New York City. Where, then, did the father of English poetry do his work? From 1374 till 1386, while employed supervising the collection of wool-duties, Chaucer was billeted in a grace-and-favour bachelor pad in the tower directly above Aldgate, the main eastern point of entry to the walled city of London.

‘Grace and favour’ makes it sound grander than it was. With the help of a wonderfully ingenious pattern of inferences — in particular an architectural drawing from 200 years later which happened to include a sketch of Aldgate’s north tower at its margins — Paul Strohm is able to reconstruct the room in which, after a long day weighing bags of wool and writing down columns of figures, Geoffrey Chaucer retired to scratch away at his verse.

Chaucer occupied a single bare room of about 16’ x 14’. The only natural light would come from ‘two (or at most four) arrow slits’ tapering through the five-foot thickness of these walls (the towers were a defensive feature) to an external aperture of four or five inches. ‘Light, even at midday, would have been extremely feeble. Arrangement for a small fire might have been possible. Waste would be hand-carried down to the ditch that lapped against the tower and dumped there.’

You can imagine how cosy it was in winter. And the noise! Chaucer slept directly over the main London thoroughfare. Every morning at first light the portcullis would go rattling up, and thereafter ‘the creak of iron-wheeled carts in and out of the city, drovers’ calls, and the hubbub of merchants and travellers pressing for advantage on a wide but still one-laned road, probably made sleep impossible, five-foot walls or no five-foot walls’. That’s if he could hear anything over the incessant bong-bonging of bells from each of the three churches within a couple of hundred feet of his front door.

More here.

Understanding (Artificial) Intelligence

Ali Minai in Barbarikon:

IMG_1396This piece in the Atlantic from a few months ago is a wonderful profile of Douglas Hofstadter and a timely exposition of an issue at the core of the artificial intelligence enterprise today.

I read Doug Hofstadter's great book, Goedel, Escher, Bach (or GEB, as everyone calls it) in 1988 as a graduate student working in artificial intelligence – and, as with most people who read that book, it was a transformative experience. Without doubt, Hofstadter is one of the most profound thinkers of our time, even if he chooses to express himself in unconventional ways. This piece captures both the depth and tragedy of his work. It is the tragedy of the epicurean in a fast food world, of a philosopher among philistines. At a time when most people working in artificial intelligence have moved on to the “practical and possible” (i.e., where the money is), Hofstadter doggedly sticks with the “practically impossible”, in the belief that his ideas and his approach will eventually recalibrate the calculus of possibility. The reference to Einstein at the end of the piece it truly telling.

My main concern, however, is the deeper point made in the Atlantic article: The degree to which the field of artificial intelligence (AI) has abandoned its original mission of replicating human intelligence and swerved towards more “practical” applications based on “Big Data”. This point was raised vociferously by Fredrik deBoer in a recent piece, and much of this post is a response to his critique of the current state of AI.

deBoer begins with a simplistic dichotomy between what he terms the “cognitive” and the “probabilistic” models of intelligence. The former, studied by neuroscientists and psychologists – grouped together under the term “cognitive scientists” – was the original concern of AI, which sought to first understand and then replicate human intelligence. Instead, what dominates today is the latter approach which seeks to achieve practical capabilities such as machine translation, text analysis, recommendation, etc., through the application of statistics to large amounts of data without any attempt to “understand” the processes in cognitive terms. deBoer sees this as a retreat for AI from its original lofty goals to mere praxis driven, in his opinion, by the utter failure of cognitive science to elucidate how real intelligence works.

More here.

The People’s Protest: Sudan from the margins

Zachariah Mampilly in n + 1:

ScreenHunter_952 Jan. 21 19.02Sudan was the site of the first major anti-colonial revolt in African history, when the followers of Muhammad Ahmad, known as the Mahdi (or Redeemer), overthrew the Anglo-Egyptian regime in 1885. Yet the Mahdist revolt is not the only or even most consequential of Sudan’s historic uprisings. In 1964, countless Sudanese took to the streets to overthrow the military regime of Ibrahim Abboud. At the forefront of the revolt was the country’s emerging civil society—students, trade unions, and members of the vibrant Sudanese Communist Party. But the protest wave quickly swelled beyond civil society, drawing in ordinary people as it flowed towards the presidential palace. Most demonstrations were peaceful, but some engendered bouts of rioting. The regime opened fire, killing twenty-eight and scattering protesters. Its victory was short lived, however: the next day, facing pressure from junior military officers unhappy with the violent crackdown, Abboud dissolved the military government and stepped aside. The triumph of the protesters, now remembered as Sudan’s “October Revolution,” represented the first time in post-colonial African history that a popular movement overthrew a military regime, preceding the Arab Spring by nearly half a century.

But few other post-colonial nations have struggled as much to remain a viable national community. Just two years ago, the southern region was cleaved off, following a civil war that had stretched on for decades. As with an amputated limb, many Sudanese cannot shake the sensation of its phantom presence.

More here.

Alcohol and Indian Nationalism

Erica Wald on Dissertation Reviews:

Alcohol indiaBetween 1880 and 1940, the association between alcohol and the Indian nation shifted dramatically. Eric Colvard’s work examines the lesser-studied role of temperance within Indian nationalism, exploring the history of nationalism (and nation-construction) through the lens of drink. The dissertation argues that there was a close connection between the two. Temperance organizations not only contributed to nascent nationalist protests, the concept of drink came to be defined as something “foreign” and inherently anti-Indian by elite nationalists themselves.

…The drinking habits of Indians changed under colonial rule, in part due to the fact that the colonial tax policy favored the consumption of “foreign” liquors over more traditional drinks such as toddy and “country” liquors. The Government of Bombay introduced the 1878 Act partly in response to criticisms of government alcohol policy by temperance advocates. These activists argued that colonial excise policy had prompted an increase in alcohol production (akbari) and that constitutional reform was needed to curb this. However, the dilemma (if it could be understood as such) for the colonial state was that excise revenues from the sale of liquor production and sale licenses represented a significant part of the revenues of each of the presidencies. Although inimical to the ideas of the temperance activists, the Bombay Act provided the presidency another way to increase its revenue. The Act placed alcoholic beverages in one of three categories: toddy; imported, or “foreign” liquor; and “country” liquor. Prior to the Act’s implementation in 1879, liquor in all forms could be sold by anyone upon payment of a license fee. The new law not only increased the tax payable on toddy trees themselves and required that tappers maintain a minimum of twenty-five trees, but fixed the price of toddy at a very low rate. The effect of these actions was to exclude the small-scale producers who had previously composed the majority of drink manufacturers. As such, the Act significantly disrupted the small-scale village economies previously dependent on the production of local liquors, shifting the contracts to wealthy monopolists who not only adulterated their liquor, but charged the public much more for it.

Read the full review here.

Ageing research: Blood to blood

Megan Scudellari in Nature:

Blood1Two mice perch side by side, nibbling a food pellet. As one turns to the left, it becomes clear that food is not all that they share — their front and back legs have been cinched together, and a neat row of sutures runs the length of their bodies, connecting their skin. Under the skin, however, the animals are joined in another, more profound way: they are pumping each other's blood. Parabiosis is a 150-year-old surgical technique that unites the vasculature of two living animals. (The word comes from the Greek para, meaning 'alongside', and bios, meaning 'life'.) It mimics natural instances of shared blood supply, such as in conjoined twins or animals that share a placenta in the womb. In the lab, parabiosis presents a rare opportunity to test what circulating factors in the blood of one animal do when they enter another animal. Experiments with parabiotic rodent pairs have led to breakthroughs in endocrinology, tumour biology and immunology, but most of those discoveries occurred more than 35 years ago. For reasons that are not entirely clear, the technique fell out of favour after the 1970s.

In the past few years, however, a small number of labs have revived parabiosis, especially in the field of ageing research. By joining the circulatory system of an old mouse to that of a young mouse, scientists have produced some remarkable results. In the heart, brain, muscles and almost every other tissue examined, the blood of young mice seems to bring new life to ageing organs, making old mice stronger, smarter and healthier. It even makes their fur shinier. Now these labs have begun to identify the components of young blood that are responsible for these changes. And last September, a clinical trial in California became the first to start testing the benefits of young blood in older people with Alzheimer's disease.

More here.

Wednesday Poem

Protesting the Tornado
—for the Westboro Baptist Church

Tornados make no mistakes.
We agree on this least of beliefs,
that after disaster walls collapse
back to ideas of houses,
our careful game
knocked to basic elements:
raw planks, exposed nails.
But I need to tell you:
weather happens—designless.

Apocalypse, it feels like,
when the wet and the noise
is so much bigger than us,
we shivering mutts in this night closet.

You sing hymns—things fall apart.
You praise the weapon, the rain mountain
reversed into a grinding top, punishment
for the new Babel of Main Street USA.
You invoke God-the-terrorist and march
as his territorial army, stock-arming
violent winds alongside firearms,
crucifixes, and damning placards.

I need to tell you
I cannot fight you,
the way prey does not turn
to be consumed by its predator—your species
who eats your saviour
and wears the instrument of his torture
at your throat.

I’m here to warn you
about the end of days,
about the delicate finger of Chance
that comes for us all.
Someday it will hover, just
above your shoulder,

terrifying & meaningless.

by Jennifer Matthews
from the Stinging Fly, Vol 2.Issue 22 , 2012

Why We Love the Pain of Spicy Food

John McQuaid in the Wall Street Journal:

BN-GF671_chili_M_20141231121915Like our affection for a hint of bitterness in cuisine, our love of spicy heat is the result of conditioning. The chili sensation mimics that of physical heat, which has been a constant element of flavor since the invention of the cooking fire: We have evolved to like hot food. The chili sensation also resembles that of cold, which is unpleasant to the skin but pleasurable in drinks and ice cream, probably because we have developed an association between cooling off and the slaking of thirst. But there’s more to it than that.

Paul Rozin, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, became interested in our taste for heat in the 1970s, when he began to wonder why certain cultures favor highly spicy foods. He traveled to a village in Oaxaca, in southern Mexico, to investigate, focusing on the differences between humans and animals. The residents there ate a diet heavy in chili-spiced food. Had their pigs and dogs also picked up a taste for it?

More here.

Is a Climate Disaster Inevitable?

Adam Frank in the New York Times:

18frank-articleLargeOur galaxy, the Milky Way, is home to almost 300 billion stars, and over the last decade, astronomers have made a startling discovery — almost all those stars have planets. The fact that nearly every pinprick of light you see in the night sky hosts a family of worlds raises a powerful but simple question: “Where is everybody?” Hundreds of billions of planets translate into a lot of chances for evolving intelligent, technologically sophisticated species. So why don’t we see evidence for E.T.s everywhere?

The physicist Enrico Fermi first formulated this question, now called theFermi paradox, in 1950. But in the intervening decades, humanity has recognized that our own climb up the ladder of technological sophistication comes with a heavy price. From climate change to resource depletion, our evolution into a globe-spanning industrial culture is forcing us through the narrow bottleneck of a sustainability crisis. In the wake of this realization, new and sobering answers to Fermi’s question now seem possible.

Maybe we’re not the only ones to hit a sustainability bottleneck. Maybe not everyone — maybe no one — makes it to the other side.

Since Fermi’s day, scientists have gained a new perspective on life in its planetary context. From the vantage point of this relatively new field, astrobiology, our current sustainability crisis may be neither politically contingent nor unique, but a natural consequence of laws governing how planets and life of any kind, anywhere, must interact.

More here.

Paris, 2015

Justin E. H. Smith in The Utopian:

Tumblr_inline_nibvvxE5QB1qe7zezMy, what a year it’s been, so far. I spent the first week of it happily writing an overdue article on philosophical debates about avian vocalization—birdsong—from Aristotle to Kant. I spent the second week engaged in near-constant polemics and editorializing about the place of free speech in a just society. My life has been entirely overtaken by debates about what is at stake in the wake of last week’s attacks. I have tried to pull out, to get back to a normal sleeping schedule, to return to beautiful things. But I can’t. It has simply been too severe a bouleversement. It is a true crisis. Life, and history, occasionally throw these our way.

In case you missed it: some days ago in Paris a pair of assassins targeted and murdered the cartoonists associated with a weekly satirical magazine that had offended them with its contributions to the low art of caricature. Two days later, an ally of the assassins murdered four more people. What was their offense? They were Jewish, and they were moreover guilty by association with the cartoonists. What was the nature of this association? They happily lived and paid taxes in the same country that had hosted Charlie Hebdo.

In the days that followed, two trends emerged. The state cynically co-opted the attacks, and used it to promote “national unity,” which in fact means increased Islamophobia and deprivation of basic rights to privacy and freedom of expression. Parallel to this a number of commentators sought effectively to excuse the attacks, or to downplay the atrocity of them.

More here.

King, Kennedy, and the Power of Words

Martin_Luther_King_Jr-e1332771446820Tim Wendel at The American Scholar:

Novelist Charles Baxter contends that the greatest influence on American writing and discourse in recent memory can be traced back to the phrase “Mistakes were made.” Of course, that’s from Watergate and the shadowy intrigue inside the Nixon White House. In his essay, “Burning Down the House,” Baxter compares that “quasi-confessional passive-voice-mode sentence” to what Robert E. Lee said after the battle of Gettysburg and the disastrous decision of Pickett’s Charge.

“All of this has been my fault,” the Confederate general said. “I asked more of the men than should have been asked of them.”

In Lee’s words, and those of King and Kennedy, we hear a refreshing candor and directness that we miss today. In 1968, people responded to what King and Kennedy told them. During that tumultuous 24-hour period in 1968, people cried aloud and chanted in Memphis. Words struck a chord in Indianapolis, too, and decades later former mayor (and now U.S. Senator) Richard Lugar told writer Thurston Clarke that Kennedy’s speech was “a turning point” for his city.

more here.

the sordid life of eduard limonov

Cover00Sophie Pinkham at Bookforum:

In Moscow, Limonov fell passionately in love with a beautiful young woman named Tanya. The new couple soon emigrated to New York; Tanya wanted to be a model, and Limonov wanted to be famous. They lived in a fleabag apartment until Tanya ran off with a French photographer, leaving Limonov to weep, drink, masturbate, and have sex with homeless men. (“I lay there smiling and thought about how I must have been the only Russian poet who had ever been smart enough to fuck a black man in a New York vacant lot,” the narrator remarks in It’s Me, Eddie, one of Limonov’s many “fictional memoirs.”) Eventually Limonov got a job as a rich man’s butler. He liked to take girls back to the mansion and do filthy things to them in the master’s bed; that was his version of class warfare. But his American friends were unwilling to entertain his fantasies about revolutionary terrorism, and in America, he had concluded, writers had it even worse than they did in the Soviet Union. He moved to Paris. French intellectuals were amused by his violently ironic posturing, his toasts to Stalin, and his mockery of Solzhenitsyn. He published two memoir-novels that made him a minor star.

When perestroika came, Limonov wasn’t pleased. The Soviet legend was the legend of his childhood, after all, and what replaced it was a miserable neoliberalism. Also, his fame in France had plateaued, and he was running out of material for his fictional memoirs. It was time for a new chapter, with higher stakes.

more here.

How Patient Suicide Affects Psychiatrists

Sulome Anderson in The Atlantic:

LeadIt’s hard to listen to a psychiatrist who sounds so broken. I expect a mental-health provider to seem healthy, detached. But even over the phone, the weariness in Dr. Brown’s voice is palpable.

“This is what we do when people die,” he says. “Even if they die an expected death, it seems to be human nature to go back over [it]. What should I have said that I didn't, or shouldn’t have said that I did? Could I have done more or did I do too much? This seems to be a part of the grieving process. I think it's especially intense in a situation where you have direct responsibility for helping the person get better.”

Brown lost a patient to suicide last year. She was a long-term client of his, the mother of a large, loving family. Right after a session with him, she went home and killed herself. Two months later, Brown’s son did the same thing.

He doesn’t want to talk about his son. It’s still too immediate and painful. But he does tell me how he felt after his patient died. “I went to the funeral,” he says quietly. “I stood for the entire service … it was completely packed with people just standing and so I was thinking, as I was listening to this service, that I was the only person in that room who had that particular relationship with that woman. Everybody else knew her in some different way. They were friends, they were family, they were relatives, maybe they knew her in the congregation and I was the only one who had been working with her, seeing her the day before, trying to prevent this. I felt unique and not in a very flattering way.”

Read the rest here.

A President and a King

Jelani Cobb in The New Yorker:

KingIn June of 2009, when an aura of idealism still attended Barack Obama’s Presidency, he delivered a speech at Cairo University that was intended to recalibrate American relations in the region. He had already offered a qualified overture in his Inaugural Address—“We will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist”—and the Cairo speech elucidated a vision of American soft power and democratic progress. Some listeners also noted a bit of historical jujitsu. In making a case for nonviolence in the region, the President remarked:

For centuries, black people in America suffered the lash of the whip as slaves, and the humiliation of segregation. But it was not violence that won full and equal rights. It was a peaceful and determined insistence upon the ideals at the center of America’s founding. This same story can be told by people from South Africa to South Asia; from Eastern Europe to Indonesia. It’s a story with a simple truth: that violence is a dead end.

Obama elided a few examples to make his argument: the more than six hundred thousand Civil War deaths in the United States; the well-documented though lesser-known history of armed black self-defense in the early twentieth century, which, in the eyes of many, served to make the nonviolent movement a palatable alternative; the armed resistance to apartheid that, for a time, counted even Nelson Mandela among its numbers. But fidelity to the historical record was not the key point.

More here.

Tuesday Poem


Radio about a foot-and-a-half

wide swinging at his side.

Three boys abreast and one

has the radio playing loud rock

they talk to as they walk

past my house. Three boys

dressed in their style

of short jackets and caps pulled

down almost to their eyes.

They might as well be naked

boys in the hot sun singing

in a changing voice the songs

they like to hear. They might

as well be boys chipping rocks

into weapons or tools.

But they are only boys on the way

someplace. They have to be men

sometime and no time for idle

rambling to rock music unless

they take jobs in the outdoors

where they can still be boys

and dress to get dirty. They can

be boys underneath the culture

forever because some other man

will gladly take those boys

and chip them down into tools

or weapons or bake them into

the walls of his own idea

of empire.

by Eloise Klein Healy
from Artemis in Echo Park
Firebrand Books, Ithaca, N.Y

Random Chance’s Role in Cancer

George Johnson in The New York Times:

CancerUnlike Ebola, flu or polio, cancer is a disease that arises from within — a consequence of the mutations that inevitably occur when one of our 50 trillion cells divides and copies its DNA. Some of these genetic misprints are caused by outside agents, chemical or biological, especially in parts of the body — the skin, the lungs and the digestive tract — most exposed to the ravages of the world. But millions every second occur purely by chance — random, spontaneous glitches that may be the most pervasive carcinogen of all. It’s a truth that grates against our deepest nature. That was clear earlier this month when a paper in Science on the prominent role of “bad luck” and cancer caused an outbreak of despair, outrage and, ultimately, disbelief.

The most intemperate of this backlash — mini-screeds on Twitter and hit-and-run comments on the web — suggested that the authors, Cristian Tomasetti and Bert Vogelstein of Johns Hopkins University, must be apologists for chemical companies or the processed food industry. In fact, their study was underwritten by nonprofit cancer foundations and grants from the National Institutes of Health. In some people’s minds, those were just part of the plot. What psychologists call apophenia — the human tendency to see connections and patterns that are not really there — gives rise to conspiracy theories. It is also at work, though usually in a milder form, in our perceptions about cancer and our revulsion to randomness. It takes several mutations, in specific combinations, for a cell to erupt into a malignant tumor. The idea that random copying errors are prominent among them is thoroughly mainstream. What was new about the paper was its attempt to measure this biological bad luck and see how it compares with the two other corners of the cancer triangle: environment and heredity — mutations we inherit from our parents that can give cancer a head start.

More here.

What to do with my dead body

by Charlie Huenemann


(Image from “AhtheMacabre” on Etsy)

As I'm closer to death than birth, I think from time to time about what to do with my dead body. Of course, in the main I don't really care. I'll be done with it, and it will be nothing other than Other People's Problem, in the deepest existential sense of those words. But sometimes I try to imagine what would be most meaningful to my surviving friends and family. For the most part, I come up empty.

My own parents are buried alongside their relatives far away in a country churchyard – and that sounds nice! – but the fact is that none of their descendants visit it with any regularity. I do think often of my parents, whom I loved and miss. But I don't know what further emotional or spiritual charge I would get by looking at a stone with their names on it and reflecting on the fact that, six feet down, there are some organic materials that once constituted their bodies. My father-in-law's ashes are in a simple wooden box which I see from time to time, and when I see them I say to myself, “Alas, poor Gerald! I knew him!” – but the experience doesn't amount to much. At best the box serves as a momento mori, and at worst it poses the problem of who's going to care for this box for the rest of time. So I don't have any good examples to follow.

I could donate my body to medical science, and I see clearly the virtue of doing so. Let the dead teach the living! But I can't quite commit myself to the idea. This raggedy donkey has been my good and true companion, for the most part, and I feel like I owe it some respect. I know it's irrational, but the thought of giving it over to medical students to cut open and explore strikes me as ingratitude. (I lived with a med student many years ago, and wasn't much reassured by the experience.)

What I would like best, of course, is for my body to be laid out on a wooden Viking ship and sent into the middle of the lake as a flaming arrow arcs overhead into the sky and delivers the fire to the pyre. But goodness knows what health and safety officers would have to say about this, and I'd hate to bequeath to my children the labors of such paperwork and legal expense – let alone the trouble of finding a builder of Viking ships. The myriad hassles and expenses would suck all the meaning and fun out of it.

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