Is there any subject that is never acceptable to joke about?

Curtis Brown in Aeon:

431117_10150650195939425_374096076_nNo. There isn’t. It might be a bit more complicated than that but not much. I was about to write “child molestation” when I remembered the comic novel generally regarded as America’s greatest after Huck Finn(which, for its part, joked about slavery). “I am now faced with the distasteful task of recording a definite drop in Lolita’s morals,” says its narrator at one point, when his 12-year-old stepdaughter-cum­-mistress demands a raise in her weekly allowance. “Laugh not, as you imagine me, on the very rack of joy noisily emitting dimes and quarters.”

Laugh not, indeed, for there is something dark at the heart of laughter. Like sex, it is impossible to morally zone and regulate, but we can’t stop trying. The most familiar law is that of the decent interval: “comedy equals tragedy plus time.” It’s sometimes attributed to Woody Allen, and it does actually feature in his tragicomic Crimes and Misdemeanors. What people forget is that he put it in the mouth of Lester, the TV producer and brother-in-law — superbly brought to life by Alan Alda — who is probably the single most fatuous ass in the entire Allen canon. Like everything else Lester says, “tragedy plus time” is smug, pernicious nonsense. Timing is everything in comedy. But whatever else it means, it doesn’t mean waiting around until the coast is clear.

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The Adventures of Sir Thomas Browne

Sir-Thomas-Browne-008Claire Preston at Literary Review:

When Thomas Browne, physician and natural philosopher, went hunting in the 1650s in books, on beaches, and in hedgerows for quincunxes in nature and culture, he discovered them in the structure of pine cones, the battle formations of the Greeks, the angles of incidence of light upon the retina, and the planting patterns of orchards. It turns out the quincunx (imagine the corners of a diamond with a dot in the middle) is everywhere. Three and a half centuries later, on a psychogeographic Brownean pilgrimage between Bury and Norwich, Hugh Aldersey-Williams found in those same hedgerows quincuncial hubcaps, which in turn prompted a meditation on that most modern of molecules, the pentagonal buckminsterfullerene. Browne's apparently eccentric observational exercise amounts to a rule in nature, one he was able to identify with an indifferent set of magnifying lenses, the naked eye, and shanks's pony. The instruments were primitive, but his slender quincuncial essay The Garden of Cyrus (1658) (its first known reader called it 'no ordinary book') epitomises the imagination of this most intellectually open and adventurous of Renaissance polymaths.

Browne's much more influential book was a massive encyclopaedia of human misunderstanding, a register of vulgar errors that catalogues epidemical false thinking, as well as the extent of his remarkable curiosity. The chiefest of pseudodoxies is a belief in whatever is generally believed: for us, that's quack diets, alien abduction, demonic possession, conspiracy theories of all kinds; for him, it's nonsense from folk wisdom, Aristotle, and the Fathers of the Church. Is it true that 'Crystal is nothing else but Ice strongly congealed'? Obviously not, he answers – the meanest understanding shows that it doesn't melt in hot weather and doesn't float in water, despite the assertions of Pliny, Ezekiel, Augustine, and Gregory the Great. Do chameleons really live on air alone?

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Notes from Hiroshima

05ca7448-09fb-11e5_1153989hJeremy Treglown at the Times Literary Supplement:

The first person to communicate to a global audience the experience of being in a nuclear holocaust did not come from Japan, where the misnamed Civil Information and Education Section of General MacArthur’s occupying army exerted a muddled but intimidating censorship. Nor was he a scientist, though researchers had poured into the area. Instead, the news was brought to the world by an American Wasp in his late twenties: tall, handsome, sporty, popular, a member of the most exclusive of Yale’s secret societies, married to a rich ex-girlfriend of John F. Kennedy. John Hersey told the story in the New Yorker, most of whose readers were either a bit like him, or aspired to be. Published in August 1946, soon after the first anniversary of the bombing, that issue of the magazine famously broke precedent by containing – ads and listings apart – only his 30,000-word article. It quickly sold out. Albert Einstein, who had already begun his anti-nuclear-proliferation pressure group the Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists, ordered 1,000 copies to distribute but had to make do with facsimiles. The article was reprinted in scores of newspapers and magazines, published as a book and translated all over the world. (Japan, though, because of the censorship, had to wait a couple of years.) How did Hersey come to write it?

Some of the answers are to be found in a fat cardboard box normally kept in a secure, temperature-controlled warehouse in Hamden, Connecticut. This is the depository of much of the vast collection of rare books and manuscripts held by Yale’s Beinecke Library, a beautiful building, though one which Czesław Miłosz, whose own papers are there, compared to a monumental tomb. In a sunken quadrangle outside the reading room stands a three-piece white marble sculpture by Isamu Noguchi, who like almost all other Japanese Americans spent the Second World War in an internment camp. His Zen-influenced “The Garden (Pyramid, Sun and Cube)” symbolizes what the catalogue of Yale’s public art calls a balance of cosmic forces and a synthesis of East and West. A similar synthesis is found in box 37 of the Hersey Papers.

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The Mysterious Edges: On Jami Attenberg and ‘Saint Mazie’

1455599891.01.LZZZZZZZHannah Gersen at The Millions:

In 1940, Joseph Mitchell published a New Yorker profile of “Bowery celebrity” Mazie P. Gordon, a career ticket-taker at the Venice movie theater whose charity toward drunken bums was as legendary as it was mysterious. Seventy years later, the profile came to the attention of novelistJami Attenberg when her friend John McCormick named his bar Saint Mazie.

“He said she was the closest thing to a saint that he’d ever heard of,” Attenberg said. “So then I became interested in her, too, and did a bunch of research on her — although there’s not actually a lot to do.”

I met Attenberg in her Williamsburg apartment, a loft with an excellent view, a minimal kitchen, and a whole lot of books. Her dog, Sid, sat at our feet for the majority of the interview, and if you follow Attenberg on any of her online platforms (Twitter, TinyLetter, Tumblr, etc.), both Attenberg and Sid are pretty much as advertised: friendly, warm, curious, and easygoing. The only time Attenberg seemed even the slightest bit taken aback was when I asked her what made her think there was a novel in Mitchell’s profile “Mazie.”

“I thought there were like 10 novels in there! I mean, she was like, friends with Chinese gangsters. That is a novel. Like, right there. All of Joseph Mitchell’s work is one massive writing prompt. He’s so good at the most precise details and leaving a little mysterious edge to everything. So I read that and it was like, complete lift-off.”

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A Private View of Quantum Reality


Amanda Gefter profiles Christopher Fuchs in Quanta Magazine (Katherine Taylor for Quanta Magazine):

Christopher Fuchs describes physics as “a dynamic interplay between storytelling and equation writing. Neither one stands alone, not even at the end of the day.” And indeed Fuchs, a physicist at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, has a radical story to tell. The story is called QBism, and it goes something like this.

Once upon a time there was a wave function, which was said to completely describe the state of a physical system out in the world. The shape of the wave function encodes the probabilities for the outcomes of any measurements an observer might perform on it, but the wave function belonged to nature itself, an objective description of an objective reality.

Then Fuchs came along. Along with the researchers Carlton Caves and Rüdiger Schack, he interpreted the wave function’s probabilities as Bayesian probabilities — that is, as subjective degrees of belief about the system. Bayesian probabilities could be thought of as gambling attitudes for placing bets on measurement outcomes, attitudes that are updated as new data come to light. In other words, Fuchs argued, the wave function does not describe the world — it describes the observer. “Quantum mechanics,” he says, “is a law of thought.”

Quantum Bayesianism, or QBism as Fuchs now calls it, solves many of quantum theory’s deepest mysteries. Take, for instance, the infamous “collapse of the wave function,” wherein the quantum system inexplicably transitions from multiple simultaneous states to a single actuality. According to QBism, the wave function’s “collapse” is simply the observer updating his or her beliefs after making a measurement. Spooky action at a distance, wherein one observer’s measurement of a particle right here collapses the wave function of a particle way over there, turns out not to be so spooky — the measurement here simply provides information that the observer can use to bet on the state of the distant particle, should she come into contact with it. But how, we might ask, does her measurement here affect the outcome of a measurement a second observer will make over there? In fact, it doesn’t. Since the wavefunction doesn’t belong to the system itself, each observer has her own. My wavefunction doesn’t have to align with yours.

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Sins of the Three Pashas


Edward Luttwak's reviews Ronald Grigor Suny's 'They Can Live in the Desert but Nowhere Else’: A History of the Armenian Genocide, in the LRB:

Turkey is a country small in neither size nor population, yet its rulers have the privilege of being ignored most of the time, no doubt because its language is remarkably little known, considering that for all its Arabic and Persian accretions it’s a most useful entry to the Oghuz Turkic tongues spoken from Moldova to China. This privilege was in evidence when Pope Francis chose in April to define the Armenian deportations, kidnappings, rapes and massacres that started in 1915 as a genocide. The Turkish government prefers fine terminological distinctions: what the pope, every Armenian and a great many others call a genocide should more properly be described as a First World War event involving mass killings (one of many such, down to the present day) and deportations (a wartime necessity given Armenian complicity in Russia’s invasion of North-east Anatolia); but in any case it was an unfortunate event that happened a long time ago, and an exception in Turkey’s fine tradition of tolerance. Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu went on the offensive in the Washington Post: ‘I am addressing the pope: those who escaped from the Catholic inquisition in Spain [Sephardic Jews] found peace in our just order in Istanbul and İzmir. We are ready to discuss historical issues, but we will not let people insult our nation through history.’

To pause on the effrontery of citing benevolence to 15th-century Jews at a time when his party and its leader, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, continually denigrate today’s Jews (he blames ‘the Saturday People’ for Turkey’s high interest rates, and explains modern history as the product of the Üst Akil, the global conspiracy of you-know-who) would be to miss the point entirely: the persecution of the Armenians didn’t start in 1915, and wasn’t a First World War event as per the official Turkish line – there had been massacres of Armenians before then, notably in 1894-96, leaving some fifty thousand orphans. And, more important, the persecution didn’t end with the First World War, but continues to this day. Its current form, aside from occasional non-state violence such as the 2007 murder of Hrant Dink, founding editor of the bilingual magazine Agos (dedicated to reconciliation), is Turkey’s artfully drafted legislation on non-profit trusts and foundations. The lack of a good law on foundations wasn’t one of the Ottoman Empire’s shortcomings; its simple and efficacious Vakf law long persisted unchanged in the successor states including decidedly non-Muslim Greece and Israel (Agudat Ottomani). But the new Turkish state needed something more modern – the text after all was in an Ottoman Turkish that was both Persianised and written in Arabic script – and laws were duly enacted. One such law of 1967 (number 743, or 4721 in the current code), which amended Article 101 of the Turkish civil code, defines foundations in the usual way: charity groups that have the status of a legal entity formed by real persons or legal entities dedicating their private property and rights for public use etc. But then it adds: ‘Formation of a foundation contrary to the characteristics of the republic defined by the constitution, constitutional rules, laws, ethics, national integrity and national interest, or with the aim of supporting a distinctive race or community, is restricted’ [emphasis added] – which actually means that it is forbidden, because there are no provisions for exceptions.

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In Consideration of the Head


Thom Cuell reviews Frances Larson's Severed: A History of Heads Lost and Heads Found, in 3:AM Magazine:

In the early 1950s, my grandfather Alan Cuell was called up for national service and sent to the rainforests of Borneo. On his first patrol, he was ordered to bring up the rear of the regiment; the only person behind him was the local Dayak guide. Alan had barely been outside Essex before, so he was intrigued by the guide’s traditional costume, particularly the items dangling from the man’s waist. Asking what they were, he was disconcerted when the translator replied, “Shrunken heads.” He spent the remainder of the patrol in constant fear that his next step would be his last, later describing it as the most terrifying experience of his life.

What Frances Larson sets out to demonstrate in Severed is that the significance of decapitated heads to the Dayak people is not as exotic as it must have seemed to my grandfather – from medieval times to the present day, severed heads have featured with at least equal prominence in European culture. It’s not all about the spectacle of heads on pikes, either: “Over the centuries,” she argues, “human heads have embellished almost every facet of our society, from the scaffold to the cathedral, and from the dissecting room to the art gallery.” This fascination with the head is reflected in our everyday speech — how often do we refer to someone putting their head on the block, or keeping their head while all those around are losing theirs?

If Alan had ever been to the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, he might have seen their famous display of shrunken heads collected by the Shuar people of Ecuador and Peru. Displayed in amongst a collection of ceremonial knives and trephination tools, the heads are regarded as one of the main attractions of the museum, with school-children and tourists crowding in to get a glimpse of them.

Larson’s examination of the shrunken heads reveals a surprising underlying dynamic: many were created specifically to meet demand from Western traders in the nineteenth century. The Shuar in fact saw the head as rather insignificant compared to the power of the soul within. The head, once shrunken, is like an envelope after the letter has been taken out. As trade increased, the heads “lost their spiritual power and became commercial products; now some Shuar simply murdered people in order to sell their heads. In this way, Europeans and Americans helped to create the indiscriminate, bloodthirsty headhunters they expected to find.”

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Cokie Roberts highlights the Civil War-era women who held the nation together

Eric Spanberg in Christian Science Monitor:

CokiePeople even casually interested in the Civil War can list the major players: President Lincoln, Jefferson Davis, Ulysses S. Grant, Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and William T. Sherman. Maybe throw in Frederick Douglass and Jeb Stuart, too. Notice anything strange about those names? All men and all white, with the exception of Douglass. While the women’s liberation movement in the 1960s raised the issue of gender equity in academics and the telling of history, broader mainstream awareness remains paltry when it comes to what half of the population was up to during important moments of the past.

Cokie Roberts, the NPR and ABC News political analyst, is helping to reverse such cultural ignorance in American history. In 2004, she wrote “Founding Mothers: The Women Who Raised Our Nation,” using letters, journals and other documents to tell the story of early-US history with perspective from and about important figures including Martha Washington, Eliza Pinckney, and Deborah Read Franklin, women who all had a unique vantage point during the Revolutionary era. Then, in 2008, came “Ladies of Liberty: The Women Who Shaped Our Nation,” examining the achievements and sorrows of notables such as Sacagawea, Theodosia Burr, Martha Jefferson and Dolley Madison, among others. Roberts again combines her historical interest and long personal knowledge of Washington politics in her new book, Capital Dames (494 pp., HarperCollins). Her latest history, published to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War, follows the lives of wives, sisters and daughters of influential politicians as well as remarkable activists.

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the world’s longest (and scariest) glass pedestrian bridge

Liz Stinson in WIRED:

BridgeHaim Dotan didn’t want to build a bridge. When two engineers approached the Israeli architect about designing a span across a 1,200-foot canyon in Zhangjiajie National Forest in China, his answer was a quick and resounding no. The land is known for its dramatic jagged rock formations and rich vegetation. If it looks like a scene out of Avatar, that’s because it is. The area, in the northwest part of Hunan province, was director James Cameron’s inspiration for the movie’s Halleluja Mountain. “[The developer] asked me, ‘What do you think about a bridge from here to there?’ And I said, ‘No,’” Dotan says. “He looked at me and said ‘Why, what are you talking about?’ And I said, ‘Why do you want a bridge? It’s too beautiful.’” The developer pressed him, and Dotan finally relented. “I told him, ‘We can build a bridge but under one condition: I want the bridge to disappear.’”

When the Zhangjiajie Grand Canyon Glass Bridge opens in the fall, it will be the longest glass pedestrian bridge in the world. The structure stretches from one rocky summit to the next with little apparent effort. The bridge seems to float 1,300 feet above the ground, almost as though it were part of the clouds. The engineering plans call for it to be 20 feet wide—large enough to host the fashion shows its developers plan to hold there—with a center platform that provides an unobstructed view and, for the adventurous types, a place for bungee jumping. The white supporting beams beneath the 5-centimeter-thick safety glass were originally 10 feet wide. Dotan wasn’t please. “I told them, ‘No, there’s no way,’” he says. “The bridge has to disappear.” After more than three years of work, the structural engineers got the beams down to not quite 2 feet, thanks to suspension cables that stretch from the cliffs to the center of the span. Although the bridge has an ethereal look, Dotan says it can withstand wind gusts of more than 100 mph.

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The Evolutionary Roots of Altruism

Melvin Konner in The American Prospect:

9780300189490David Sloan Wilson opens his new book, Does Altruism Exist?, with an old conundrum that has animated many late-night dormitory debates: If helping someone gives you pleasure, gains you points for an afterlife, and enhances your reputation, is it really altruism? Wilson wisely decides to put acts before motives: “When Ted benefits Martha at a cost to himself, that’s altruistic, regardless of how he thinks or feels about it.” Great. But what does “cost” mean in that sentence? Does it mean “cost” after considering all those benefits, or not?

Wilson believes that to answer this question, we must turn to evolutionary theory, and especially to a theory known as group selection, which holds that better adapted groups produce more offspring, with the result that their traits are passed on. The implications are far-reaching. If group selection is correct, it follows that humans and other group-living creatures are fundamentally not selfish but cooperative and even altruistic—that we human beings owe our existence to distant ancestors who were members of groups that succeeded because they were better able to cooperate than other groups.

Group selection departs from the more familiar model of individual selection that sees the evolutionary prize going to the individual, male or female, who has more surviving offspring, regardless of health and life-span, much less altruism. Yet another variant of Darwinian theory reduces evolution to what the biologist Richard Dawkins famously called “the selfish gene.” In this view, the true competition to reproduce is at the level of the gene, and an organism is only a gene’s way of making a copy of itself.

Selfish-gene theory allowed, however, for an explanation of altruism that arose in the 1960s and became known as “kin selection.”

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How the ‘John Oliver Effect’ Is Having a Real-Life Impact

Victor Luckerson in Time:

ScreenHunter_1210 Jun. 04 20.19Comedians mock our cultural and political institutions on TV all the time. But it’s not every day that a comic’s jokes crash a government website or directly inspire legislators to push for new laws.

John Oliver, host of HBO comedy news program Last Week Tonight, is quickly building up that level of cultural cachet. While his forebears and former colleagues Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart spend as much time lampooning the news media covering world events as they do analyzing events themselves, Oliver’s show stands out for its investigations into topics as varied as the militarization of the police state, Net neutrality and Argentina’s debt crisis.

Oliver’s approach has even been cited as an inspiration for local government transparency. In January, a Washington State legislator proposed a new bill that would let citizens comment on new legislation using videos submitted online. The state senator backing the new bill credited Oliver’s ability to turn boring topics into viral phenomena through online video as motivation for the new initiative.

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The Tampon: A History

Ashley Fetters in The Atlantic:

ScreenHunter_1209 Jun. 04 20.12On Aug. 18, 2011, a thread titled “I design tampons. AMA!” appeared on the news-conversation website Reddit. Hosted by a user named “karnim” who identified himself only as a college-aged male research-and-development intern at one of the “big three” tampon brands (Tampax, Kotex, and Playtex), the thread began with a polite invitation to “ask me anything” (AMA) and a disclaimer. “Much of my work is confidential, so I can't give details about my projects,” karnim wrote, but he could answer “overall” questions about tampons.

In the grander canon of AMA threads—online Q&A sessions hosted by Reddit users with compelling life stories or careers—karnim’s wasn’t the most glamorous or flashy. President Obama, for example, participated in an AMA in 2012. But karnim soon found himself avalanched with reader questions about tampon technology, ranging from the curious (“Why don't they just stop making the cardboard ones?”) to the wisecracking (“Can you make medicated tampons to make women stop actin’ fool when they get their menses?”) to the imploring (“Can you please make tampons with a black or flesh-coloured string? Please?” “How about one that you can leave in for 10 hours and not worry about it?”).

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Following John Muir’s footsteps through California’s high country

HarpersWeb-Postcard-Shasta-622Jeremy Miller at Harper's Magazine:

In 1875, John Muir wrote of Mount Shasta and California’s other glaciated peaks in an influential article for this magazine, titled “The Living Glaciers of California.” His musings on Shasta were, in part, based on experiences from a visit he’d made to the mountain a year earlier. From his haunts in Yosemite he plodded north, along the California and Oregon Stage Road (on foot, of course) from Redding to the small outpost of Sisson’s Station, near the Oregon border. When he arrived on November 1, Shasta rose before him like a great sugar heap. Although early season storms had buried the mountain under nearly ten feet of snow, he climbed upward, using his packhorse as a snowplow to break through the highest drifts. “Some places I had to creep, and some places to slide, and some places to scramble, but most places I had to climb, climb, climb deep in the frosty snow,” wrote Muir of his November ascent.

The ice- and snow-loving Scotsman would hardly recognize Shasta, or the rest of California, in its parched state today. This winter has been the warmest in 120 years of recordkeeping. And for the last few years, a force field–like ridge of high-pressure air hovered off the California coast during the last couple winters and sent storms careening north of the state, depriving the coast, peaks, and valleys of vital precipitation.

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pictures from the feud

Vera7Brian Dillon at Cabinet Magazine:

For at least forty years and very likely more, my father’s sister maintained a feud with her next-door neighbors (both sides) that slowly came to dominate her life, a quarrel from which it seemed to us—the rest of her family—she drew a malign sort of energy and out of which, despite the best efforts of all, she could not finally be extricated.

She had inherited the problem—I almost wrote project—from her parents, who moved into the redbrick suburban Dublin house with their three children (then in teens and twenties) in the late 1940s. Who knows how it all began. My grandfather was a bully and a snob, a former soldier and police sergeant with a greatly inflated sense of his moral and social standing. Some measure of his character may be gleaned from the fact that when he retired early from the police in the 1950s, he got a job as a debt collector—but a debt collector for a chain of toy stores. Imagine the old bastard cycling up your street one fine spring morning, his saddlebag full of confiscated gifts: the spirit of Christmas repossessed. My guess is a man of his sort easily took offense at some small infringement of a boundary: a hedge trimmed too far in his direction, a woodpile carelessly edging into his garden, something of that sort. Maybe his children rolled their eyes at the sight of Daddy in the garden at dusk, his Hitchcock silhouette tapering to a pair of bicycle clips, pointing and shouting at the hedge.

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