New poems from John Ashbery

150601_r26579_rd-320-240-21105451Dan Chiasson at The New Yorker:

John Ashbery’s latest book of poems—his twenty-sixth, not counting various compilations and re-issues—is “Breezeway” (Ecco). As with most of Ashbery’s work, its medium is composed partly of language foraged from everyday American speech. The effect is sometimes unnerving, as though somebody had given you your own garbage back as a gift, cheerfully wrapped. Ashbery is nearly eighty-eight; more than ever, his style is a net for the weirdest linguistic flotsam. Few others of his generation would think to put “lemon telenovela” or “texasburger” in a poem, or write these lines: “Thanks / to a snakeskin toupee, my grayish push boots / exhale new patina / prestige. Exeunt the Kardashians.” He has gone farther from literature within literature than any poet alive. His game is to make an intentionally frivolous style express the full range of human feeling, and he remains funnier and better at it, a game he invented, than his many imitators.

It’s common for people to prefer a prior Ashbery, though few can agree on which one. There is the noncompliant poet of “The Tennis Court Oath,” his 1962 book, giddy in his defiance of meaning; the poet of childhood and its longueurs whom we encounter in his seven-hundred-and-thirty-nine-line poem, “The Skaters” (1966); the sublime meditative poet of “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” (1975); the elegist of “Your Name Here” (2000).

more here.

Fitzgerald’s greatest novel: It’s not the one everyone thinks it is

Taki in Spectator:

ScottFitzgerald was famously obsessed with the mysteries of great wealth, but back then wealth was something new among Americans. Poor old Scott wrote more about the ruinous effects of wealth, which is a very large theme even today. I recently read a couple of articles on Fitzgerald, one claiming that he wrote Gatsby in Great Neck, Long Island, where the action takes place, the other that he wrote the greatest of American novels in Antibes. I believe both writers are correct. Fitzgerald started the novel in Long Island and finished it in Antibes. Detective Taki solves the riddle in one short declarative sentence.

Scott and Zelda’s two granddaughters, their mother being Scottie, the couple’s only issue, are very much with us and recently visited Juan-les-Pins and the hotel that was once the home of their grandparents. The cruel irony is that Scott died broke and forgotten, and his granddaughters are very rich because of his immortal work. Although The Great Gatsby is considered Scott’s greatest work, the greatest literary critic of our time, Taki, thinks otherwise. He gives the nod to Tender Is the Night. When Fitzgerald showed Papa the manuscript of Gatsby, Hemingway did not brood, he sprang into action. He came up with The Sun Also Rises, not a bad response. It was almost America versus Europe. Great stuff. Which brings me to Hollywood. The best that degenerate place has managed in filming either writer’s works was — in my not so humble opinion — The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber, Papa’s short story about grace under pressure.

More here.

Don’t Overthink It, Less Is More When It Comes To Creativity

Jessica Schmerler in Scientific American:

CreateMost of us have experienced writer’s block at some point, sitting down to write, paint or compose only to find we can’t get the creative juices flowing. Most frustrating of all, the more effort and thought we put into it, the harder it may become. Now, at least, neuroscientists might have found a clue about why it is so hard to force that creative spark. Researchers at Stanford University recently set out to explore the neural basis of creativity and came up with surprising findings. Their study, published May 28 in Scientific Reports, suggests the cerebellum, the brain region typically associated with movement, is involved in creativity. If so, the discovery could change our understanding of the neurological mechanisms behind some thought processes.

There is a scientific belief that the cerebral cortex is the part of the brain that “makes us human,” and that the two hemispheres of the cortex differentiate the creative thinkers from the logical thinkers (the “right-brained” from the “left-brained”). This has fostered the view that “neurological processes can be divided into “higher” cognitive functions and “lower” basic sensory-motor, functions,” says Robert Barton, an evolutionary biologist at Durham University in England who was not involved in this study—but the latest research calls that understanding into question.

More here.

More here.

Warp Drives and Scientific Reasoning

Warpy

Sean Carroll in Preposterous Universe:

The more recent “news” is not actually about warp drive at all. It’s about propellantlessspace drives — which are, if anything, even less believable than the warp drives. (There is a whole zoo of nomenclature devoted to categorizing all of the non-existent technologies of this general ilk, which I won’t bother to keep straight.) Warp drives at least inspired by some respectable science — Miguel Alcubierre’s energy-condition-violating spacetime. The “propellantless” stuff, on the other hand, just says “Laws of physics? Screw em.”

You may have heard of a little thing called Newton’s Third Law of Motion — for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. If you want to go forward, you have to push on something or propel something backwards. The plucky NASA engineers in question aren’t hampered by such musty old ideas. As others have pointed out, what they’re proposing is very much like saying that you can sit in your car and start it moving by pushing on the steering wheel.

I’m not going to go through the various claims and attempt to sort out why they’re wrong. I’m not even an engineer! My point is a higher-level one: there is no reason whatsoever why these claims should be given the slightest bit of credence, even by complete non-experts. The fact that so many media outlets (with some happy exceptions) have credulously reported on it is extraordinarily depressing.

Now, this might sound like a shockingly anti-scientific attitude. After all, I certainly haven’t gone through the experimental results carefully. And it’s a bedrock principle of science that all of our theories are fundamentally up for grabs if we collect reliable evidence against them — even one so well-established as conservation of momentum. So isn’t the proper scientific attitude to take a careful look at the data, and wait until more conclusive experiments have been done before passing judgment? (And in the meantime make some artist’s impressions of what our eventual spaceships might look like?)

No. That is not the proper scientific attitude. For a very scientific reason: life is too short.

More here.

Thursday Poem

Tonight

You are being born. Feels good.
Something enormous kisses you.
Its eye surveys your revolutions.
Relaxed in your new nudity.

you work your labyrinthine ears,
those perfect disciples,
registering all that hums, ticks.
O you encyclopedia you,

you do not know what I know,
how blank the cold world can grow.
But let the addendums come later.
I listen to the dust from the city

gather on the necks of the saints
at the hospital’s exits I exit.
And so I say to you yes you:
everyone’s a fugitive. Everyone.
.

by Spencer Reece
from The Clerk’s Tale

What We Really Need is a Slice of Humble Pie

Daniel Nexon, over at Duck of Minerva:

We now have a lot of different meta-narratives about alleged fraud in “When Contact Changes Minds: An Experiment in the Transmission of Support for Gay Equality.” These reflect not only different dimensions of the story, but the different interests at stake.

One set concerns confirmation bias and the left-leaning orientations of a majority of political scientists. At First Things, for example. Matthew J. Franck contrasts the reception of the LaCour and Green study (positive) with that of Mark Regnerus’ finding of inferior outcomes for children of gay parents (negative). There’s some truth here. Regnerus’ study was terminally flawed. LaCour and Green’s study derived, most likely, from fraudulent data. Still, one comported with widespread ideological priors in the field, while the other did not. That surely shaped their differential reception. But so did the startling strength of the latter’s findings, as well as the way they cut against conventional wisdom on the determinants of successful persuasion.

We might describe another as “science worked.”

This narrative sometimes strays into the triumphalist: rather than exposing problems with the way political science operates, the scandal shows how the discipline is becoming more scientific and thus more able to catch—and correct—flawed studies. Again, there’s something to this. To the extent that political scientists utilize, say, experiments, then that opens up the possibility of creating fraudulent experimental data but also of uncovering such fraud.

More here.

Hive consciousness

Final1-960x601

Peter Watts in Aeon (Illustration by Richard Wilkinson):

Rajesh Rao (of the University of Washington's Center for Sensorimotor Neural Engineering) reported what appears to be a real Alien Hand Network – and going Pais-Vieira one better, he built it out of people. Someone thinks a command; downstream, someone else responds by pushing a button without conscious intent. Now we're getting somewhere.

There’s a machine in a lab in Berkeley, California, that can read the voxels right off your visual cortex and figure out what you’re looking at based solely on brain activity. One of its creators, Kendrick Kay, suggested back in 2008 that we’d eventually be able to read dreams(also, that we might want to take a closer look at certain privacy issues before that happened). His best guess was that this might happen a few decades down the road – but it took only four years for a computer in a Japanese lab to predict the content of hypnagogic hallucinations (essentially, dreams without REM) at 60 per cent accuracy, based entirely on fMRI data.

When Moore’s Law shaves that much time off the predictions of experts, it’s not too early to start wondering about consequences. What are the implications of a technology that seems to be converging on the sharing of consciousness?

It would be a lot easier to answer that question if anyone knew what consciousness is. There’s no shortage of theories. The neuroscientist Giulio Tononi at the University of Wisconsin-Madison claims that consciousness reflects the integration of distributed brain functions. A model developed by Ezequiel Morsella, of San Francisco State University, describes it as a mediator between conflicting motor commands. The panpsychics regard it as a basic property of matter – like charge, or mass – and believe that our brains don’t generate the stuff so much as filter it from the ether like some kind of organic spirit-catchers. Neuroscience superstar V S Ramachandran (University of California in San Diego) blames everything on mirror neurons; Princeton’s Michael Graziano – right here in Aeon – describes it as an experiential map.

I think they’re all running a game on us. Their models – right or wrong – describe computation, not awareness. There’s no great mystery to intelligence; it’s easy to see how natural selection would promote flexible problem-solving, the triage of sensory input, the high-grading of relevant data (aka attention).

But why would any of that be self-aware?

More here.

The Salafi war on Sufism

27TH_CHISTI_2418330f

Shail Maryam in The Hindu:

On my last day in Tunis I was finally able to perform my ziyarat (pilgrimage) to the mausoleum of the great Sufi, Abu al-Hasan ash-Shadhili, popularly known as Imam ash-Shadhili or Sidi Belhassan. It was an overwhelming experience. An all-woman zikr was in progress when I entered the hall. The men had been relegated to an outer room and the inner hall reverberated with women’s voices singing a song about the saint. Zikr (dhikr) has many meanings ranging from prayer to recitation to repetition of an expression of praise. Here it culminated in a trance-generating incantation of ‘Allahu Akbar’ with the repetitive ‘Akbar, Akbar, Akbar’ becoming like an ‘Om’ or a Buddhist chant. I had come to Tunis to participate in a panel at the World Social Forum 2015, part of an initiative of the South Asian Dialogues on Ecological Democracy, to engage in a larger global debate on Islam and democracy. My presentation focussed on the philosophical contribution of Sufi brotherhoods such as Chishtis, Qadiris and Madaris as also of independent qalandars in the Indian subcontinent. The Chishtis and Qadiris are close cousins of the Shadhili (Shazili) brotherhood, which was important in Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco. Sidi Belhassen was a Shadhili Sufi who came from Morocco and established his first zawiya in Tunis in 1227. In India, the Chishti order had already been established by Muinuddin Chishti from Chisht, Afghanistan. Some Shadhili and Chishti Sufis are authors of philosophical treatises.

The big question, of course, is why the antipathy between Sufis and Salafis is becoming a civil war in Islam. Indeed, the war itself is fairly one-sided, as the other side is the victim of the attack and has no strategy for a concerted counter-attack. But without romanticising either Sufism — any ‘ism’ is problematic — or the “good Muslim”, we only have to peruse early Sufi medieval texts to see how Sufi philosophies provide major sources of resistance to Salafist and other exclusionary ideologies. They go back to a period when religion and philosophy were not yet divorced. These philosophies also suggest Islam’s civilisational dialogue with Greek and Hindu-Buddhist philosophies.

A few years ago, in Pakistan, I had visited the mausoleum of the great Sufi Abul Hassan Ali Hajvari, popularly called Daata Sahib (990-1077), now behind barbed wire after its bombing in 2010. Abul Hassan Ali Hajvari is the author of Kashf Al Mahjub or The Revelation of the Veiled, a text in Persian that the philosopher Ghazala Irfan teaches at the Lahore University of Management Sciences. I had also made another pilgrimage to Pakpattan where the mausoleum of Baba Farid, one of the great Chishti Sufis, had been similarly attacked.

More here.

the great, forgotten Yasuo Kuniyoshi

Aaafedeartp143722.jpg__800x600_q85_crop_subject_location-219,323Roger Catlin at The Smithsonian:

Kuniyoshi’s innovative genius came in his blending of Japanese idioms with American folk art influences as well as that of European modernism. “”His work is a distinctive expression of many strands of early twentieth-century American art flavored with his sly humor, idiosyncratic imagination, personal experience, and subtle references to his Japanese heritage,” writes Moser in an essay.

It was during early visits to an artists colony in Ogonquit, Maine, sponsored by his friend and patron Hamilton Easter Field, that led Kuniyoshi to the kind of flattened spaces, squat figures and diminishing of single point perspective that marked his work, says Wolf, a professor of art at Bard College.

A visit to Europe in 1925 gave a more provocative tone to Kuniyoshi's work, as well as an interest in circuses. His 1925 Circus Girl Resting gained wide renown when it was chosen as part of a 1947 U.S. State Department funded exhibition “Advancing American Art,” a sort of traveling show of cultural diplomacy that also featured work by Hopper, O’Keeffe, Stuart Davis and Marsden Hartley.

more here.

on fellow traveling

Syriza1The Editors at The Point:

There may be a sense in which the Greek crisis is indeed our era’s Bolshevik Revolution or Spanish Civil War, namely that it has become the destination of choice for what we might call “political travel.” Political travel involves immersing yourself in the domestic concerns of another country on the basis of their putative significance for the world at large. This can involve the desire to be there when it all happens, but it doesn’t have to—what is crucial is the desire to throw your heart and soul into mastering the internal complexities of a far-off land, in hopes of being there intellectually when it all happens. Political travel is easy to mock, but at root it reflects a perfectly respectable desire to understand your world and to change it. The problem is that like any travel it runs the risk of turning into tourism: the consumption of an “other” neatly packaged to fit into our existing mental landscape without disturbing or unsettling it.

There was a lot of (mostly leftist) political tourism over the last century, from extreme cases like Foucault on the Iranian Revolution to more forgivable ones like Chomsky on Chávez or Zizek on the Arab Spring. But the archetypal political tourist was probably Lord Byron, who joined the Greek struggle for independence in 1823.

more here.

Will Computers Redefine the Roots of Math?

_nas_wp_www_cluster-10811_quanta_wp-content_files_mf_cache_915f3d84ec89f011f4c64ec05e66d59a_UnivalentFoundations_996

Kevin Hartnett in Quanta (image Hannes Hummel for Quanta Magazine):

On a recent train trip from Lyon to Paris, Vladimir Voevodsky sat next to Steve Awodey and tried to convince him to change the way he does mathematics.

Voevodsky, 48, is a permanent faculty member at the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS) in Princeton, N.J. He was born in Moscow but speaks nearly flawless English, and he has the confident bearing of someone who has no need to prove himself to anyone. In 2002 he won the Fields Medal, which is often considered the most prestigious award in mathematics.

Now, as their train approached the city, Voevodsky pulled out his laptop and opened a program called Coq, a proof assistant that provides mathematicians with an environment in which to write mathematical arguments. Awodey, a mathematician and logician at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pa., followed along as Voevodsky wrote a definition of a mathematical object using a new formalism he had created, called univalent foundations. It took Voevodsky 15 minutes to write the definition.

“I was trying to convince [Awodey] to do [his mathematics in Coq],” Voevodsky explained during a lecture this past fall. “I was trying to convince him that it’s easy to do.”

The idea of doing mathematics in a program like Coq has a long history. The appeal is simple: Rather than relying on fallible human beings to check proofs, you can turn the job over to computers, which can tell whether a proof is correct with complete certainty. Despite this advantage, computer proof assistants haven’t been widely adopted in mainstream mathematics. This is partly because translating everyday math into terms a computer can understand is cumbersome and, in the eyes of many mathematicians, not worth the effort.

For nearly a decade, Voevodsky has been advocating the virtues of computer proof assistants and developing univalent foundations in order to bring the languages of mathematics and computer programming closer together. As he sees it, the move to computer formalization is necessary because some branches of mathematics have become too abstract to be reliably checked by people.

More here.

Is the Former Soviet Bloc ‘White’?

6a00d83453bcda69e201b7c78c3700970b-800wi

Justin E. H. Smith over at his website:

In the online activity many young people in North America mistake for political engagement, 'white' has become a peculiar sort of insult: a flippant meme masquerading as a serious analytic category. We witness today a constant jockeying for prestige, almost entirely among white men, in which each one strives to publicly display that he is the first and only to have overcome the various pathologies, real and imagined, of white-man-hood. As the sharp critic Fredrik DeBoer has observed, this impoverishment of political debate now leaves us with the obscene and absurd phenomenon of the 'White Off':

A White Off is a peculiar 21st-century phenomenon where white progressives try to prove that the other white progressives they’re arguing with are The Real Whites. It’s a contest in shamelessness: who can be more brazen in reducing race to a pure argumentative cudgel? Who feels less guilt about using the fight against racism as a way to elevate oneself in a social hierarchy? Which white person will be the first to pull out “white” as a pejorative in a way that demonstrates the toothlessness of the concept? Within progressivism today, there is an absolute lack of shame or self-criticism about reducing racial discourse to a matter of straightforward personal branding and social signaling. It turns my stomach.

As for me, I live in Europe, I am not terribly invested in social-media battles of the sort DeBoer seems to enjoy, and so I have only a passing familiarity with the phenomena at issue. How then do I spend my time? Well, when not wondering what the hell is wrong with my fellow Americans, I often find myself thinking about Russia: What is it? What were the historical forces that made it possible for Muscovy to rise to become the principal counterhegemonic force throughout the Pax Americana of the 20th century, and to reappear, some years into the 21st, as a significant player on the world scene?

And in this connection, I have begun to wonder whether this 'white' thing is not perhaps a symptom of a distinctly 'Atlanticist' world view, and whether it might not have somewhat less purchase when one instead looks at the world from a 'Eurasianist' perspective. These are of course the sinister Aleksandr Dugin's terms, and when I invoke them I do not mean to endorse them as true, but rather to make some progress toward understanding why the Russians in particular and the citizens of the former Soviet bloc in general constitute such a peculiar tertium quid in relation to the schemes for carving up of the basic human subkinds that are general currency among American bloggers: they don't see themselves in our Atlantic-centered racial categories, and that exclusion, that irrelevance of our grids, only makes them more estranged and hostile, less NATO-oid. The war in Europe that appears to be taking shape at present is going to be between groups of people Aaron Bady, say, would call 'white', but it's pretty clear that that designation doesn't mean much to at least one of the sides, and that there's a long, deep continental history that's being overlooked when Eurasians, and notably Russians, are thought of in these Atlanticizing terms.

More here.

Backyard evolution

42-56657997-960x601

Victoria Schlesinger in Aeon (Marbled Salamander. Photo by Michel Gunther/Biosphoto/Corbis):

Before there is a species, there’s a muddled period of innumerable changes as a group of individuals diverges, gene by gene, from their ancestors into a new species. The point at which those tiny changes add up to a separate species has been debated since the days of Aristotle. Further complicating matters, our basic litmus test for delineating species – viable offspring – is shaky at best. We know that when grizzly bears and polar bears mate, or coyote and wolf for that matter, the two species produce hybrid young – a combination individual that reflects some of the traits of each parent. It’s no wonder that roughly 26 concepts compete for the definition of species. Species are not so much a set of fixed traits but a temporary collection of them along a fluid continuum. The field guides belie variety within a species because it is so copious and ever-changing that you couldn’t get it on paper if you wanted to.

Scientists have long recognised the incredible diversity within a species. But they thought it reflected evolutionary changes that unfolded imperceptibly, over millions of years. That divergence between populations within a species was enforced, according to Ernst Mayr, the great evolutionary biologist of the 1940s, when a population was separated from the rest of the species by a mountain range or a desert, preventing breeding across the divide over geologic scales of time. Without the separation, gene flow was relentless. But as the separation persisted, the isolated population grew apart and speciation occurred.

In the mid-1960s, the biologist Paul Ehrlich – author of The Population Bomb (1968) – and his Stanford University colleague Peter Raven challenged Mayr’s ideas about speciation. They had studied checkerspot butterflies living in the Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve in California, and it soon became clear that they were not examining a single population. Through years of capturing, marking and then recapturing the butterflies, they were able to prove that within the population, spread over just 50 acres of suitable checkerspot habitat, there were three groups that rarely interacted despite their very close proximity.

Among other ideas, Ehrlich and Raven argued in a now classic paper from 1969 that gene flow was not as predictable and ubiquitous as Mayr and his cohort maintained, and thus evolutionary divergence between neighbouring groups in a population was probably common.

More here.

ISIS & the Shia Revival in Iraq

Pelham1_1-060415_jpg_600x614_q85

Nicolas Pelham in the NYRB:

Yet Sunni fears are not without basis. Ten days after Mosul’s capture, as ISISapproached Baghdad airport, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the Shiite spiritual leader based in Iraq’s Shia shrine city of Najaf, south of Baghdad, issued a call for jihad against ISIS and its Sunni allies. In their panic, cloistered and quietist Shia clerics who for a decade had struck pacifist poses turned into militant mullahs. The night I arrived in Najaf, a Qatari Shiite preacher, Nazar al-Qatari, had put on military fatigues to rally worshipers after evening prayers. All were obliged, he cried, to fight for Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, against “the slayers of Imams Hasan and Hussein”—i.e., great imams of Shia history—and join in what the clerics have dubbed the hashad shaabi, or popular mobilization.

To ward off the threat to Baghdad from the Sunni north, Shiite volunteers converged on its streets from the south. Baghdad’s public space feels overwhelmingly Shiite. Leaders of Shiite militias who had previously denounced al-Sistani’s vacillation now celebrated his de facto legalization of the militias’ advance. Abu Jaafar Darraji, a senior commander from the Badr Organization, the largest and most openly pro-Iranian of the militias, told me that not even Khamenei’s predecessor, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, had dared to declare such an open-ended jihad against a Sunni enemy. In the recruiting center he ran in Baghdad he had covered the walls with portraits of Ayatollah Khamenei and al-Sistani. The ones of al-Sistani had stencils of guns on them.

With a fresh supply of arms and training from Iran, Darraji claimed that his Badr militia could outgun the official Iraqi army and set up an alternative system of government. Pointing at Khamenei’s portrait, he said, “He’s the wali amr al-muslimeen, the legal ruler in all the Muslim lands.” Once the militia—the hashad—had accomplished its mission of vanquishing ISIS, it would, he said, be the Iraqi branch of Iran’s Basij, the zealous youth group of vigilantes Khomeini founded in 1979 to uphold his revolution and purge Iran of his enemies.

Iran’s presence, once a hidden force, has shed its camouflage. On billboards in the capital he struck with rockets during the war with Iraq of 1980–1988, Khomeini now can be seen holding a map of Iraq in his hand.

More here.

Layers Of Reality: A Conversation with Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll at Edge:

ScreenHunter_1202 May. 27 18.50There's an old creationist myth that says there’s a problem with the fact that we live in a universe governed by the second law of thermodynamics: Disorder, or entropy, grows with time from early times to later times. If that were true, how in the world could it be the case that here on Earth something complicated and organized like human beings came to be? There's a simple response to this, which is that the second law of thermodynamics says that things grow disorderly in closed systems, and the earth is not a closed system. We get energy in a low entropy form from the sun. We radiate it out in a high entropy form to the universe. But okay, there's still a question: even if it's allowed for a structure to form here on Earth, why did it? Why does that happen? Is that something natural? Is that something that needs to be guided or does it just happen?

In some sense this is a physics problem. I've become increasingly interested in how the underlying laws of physics, which are very simple and mindless and just push particles around according to equations, take us from the very simple early universe near the Big Bang after 10100 years to the expanding, desolate, cold and empty space in our future, passing through the current stage of the history of the universe where things are rich and intricate and complex.

We know there's a law of nature, the second law of thermodynamics, that says that disorderliness grows with time. Is there another law of nature that governs how complexity evolves? One that talks about multiple layers of the structures and how they interact with each other? Embarrassingly enough, we don't even know how to define this problem yet. We don't know the right quantitative description for complexity. This is very early days. This is Copernicus, not even Kepler, much less Galileo or Newton. This is guessing at the ways to think about these problems.

More here.

UPDIKE COUNTRY

Morgan Meis in The Smart Set:

ScreenHunter_1201 May. 27 18.46On a very clear day, blue sky, bright, bright sunlight, you’ll spy an amazing cloud. It is structured like a column. It is dense and white and billows upward, touching the outer limits of the firmament, seemingly. Probably it goes up only a few hundred feet. But the verticality of the cloud is what makes it so inspiring. Just going right up there. Up into the heavens over semi-rural Pennsylvania.

How did this cloud get here, in such an otherwise empty, blue sky? It is a miracle.

They started building the Limerick nuclear power plant in 1974 and it was officially commissioned in 1986. Officially, the plant is called The Limerick Generating Station. Limerick. The name comes from the town. The town is not really a town. Or, at least, I’ve never seen the center of it. There is no locality to the town, just signs as you drive around saying that you’re in Limerick or no longer in Limerick. There is a small, regional airport in Limerick and an outlet shopping center.

Truth be told, the town of Limerick is basically the nuclear power plant now. That is the center. You can see the steam cloud rising over the cooling towers from miles away. It is a useful point of orientation when driving around the windy roads that double back on themselves half of the time.

John Updike always wrote beautifully about this part of the world. The middle class houses. The certain kind of red clay. The specific attitude of a person who grew up around here, in the vicinity of Reading.

More here.