Bellow: The ‘Defiant, Irascible Mind’

Rich_1-060415_jpg_250x1375_q85Nathaniel Rich at The New York Review of Books:

Saul Bellow’s Ravelstein—included in the Library of America’s final volume of Saul Bellow’s complete novels—is a eulogy in novel form for his friend Allan Bloom. But it also contains a kind of eulogy for Bellow himself. A shift in emphasis occurs about halfway through when Ravelstein, close to death, predicts that Chick (more or less Bellow’s alter ego) will soon follow him to the grave. Before long Ravelstein is dead and Chick is hospitalized for a potentially fatal case of food poisoning. Chick spends much of the latter part of the novel contemplating death and summing up his life. “I…lived to see the phenomena,” he concludes. Life may pass by in a continuous series of “pictures,” yet “in the surface of things you saw the heart of things.”*

Chick, the author of a biography, has made a career of examining the surface of things to understand the inner lives of his subjects. “Ordinary daily particulars,” he writes, “were my specialty.” The same was true of Bellow in his fiction. He was, in his own term, a world-class noticer. One of the distinctive thrills of reading Bellow is the exuberant richness of his descriptive prose—in the case of Ravelstein, for instance, we glimpse his “honeydew-melon head,” “legs paler than milk” that emerge from an ill-fitting kimono, and a laugh “like Picasso’s wounded horse in Guernica, rearing back.”

more here.

The Versions of Us

Elena Seymenliyska in The Telegraph:

Paltrow_3317104bThe multiverse has gone from a far-out theory to a commonplace of physics. The idea that there are versions of us in parallel universes is not just handy in science, it’s also a perfect vehicle for fiction. In the film Sliding Doors (1998), Gwyneth Paltrow runs for a train: if she catches it, she’ll find love; if she misses it, she won’t. In Lionel Shrivers novel The Post-Birthday World (2007), the two storylines hinge on the question “Do you kiss the guy or not?” So Laura Barnett’s The Versions of Us is in good company, but what makes this debut novel stand out is that it offers not two but three possible narratives. It is 1958 and Eva is a second-year English student at Cambridge cycling to a supervision with her essay on T S Eliot’s Four Quartets in her satchel. In version one, her bike goes over a nail and a passer-by offers to fix it: this is Jim, a second-year law student, and the man Eva will leave her boyfriend to marry. In version two, Eva’s bike misses the nail; she doesn’t meet Jim, but goes on to marry that boyfriend, aspiring actor David. Version three has the puncture and the meeting with Jim, but this time Eva tries to do the right thing, ending up in a loveless marriage with David.

There is much overlap between the three versions. Eva is always wise, sensitive, dignified, like a character out of a Margaret Drabblenovel; Jim is always troubled, impulsive, artistic; and David is always superficial, egotistical, successful. What’s different is the central dynamic, dependent on whether Eva stays happily with Jim, or unhappily with David. Much of the appeal of the book comes in working out which story matches one’s own: are you a version one, two or three person?

More here.

CRISPR, the disruptor

Heidi Ledford in Nature:

CRISOR-1Three years ago, Bruce Conklin came across a method that made him change the course of his lab. Conklin, a geneticist at the Gladstone Institutes in San Francisco, California, had been trying to work out how variations in DNA affect various human diseases, but his tools were cumbersome. When he worked with cells from patients, it was hard to know which sequences were important for disease and which were just background noise. And engineering a mutation into cells was expensive and laborious work. “It was a student's entire thesis to change one gene,” he says.

Then, in 2012, he read about a newly published technique1 called CRISPR that would allow researchers to quickly change the DNA of nearly any organism — including humans. Soon after, Conklin abandoned his previous approach to modelling disease and adopted this new one. His lab is now feverishly altering genes associated with various heart conditions. “CRISPR is turning everything on its head,” he says. The sentiment is widely shared: CRISPR is causing a major upheaval in biomedical research. Unlike other gene-editing methods, it is cheap, quick and easy to use, and it has swept through labs around the world as a result. Researchers hope to use it to adjust human genes to eliminate diseases, create hardier plants, wipe out pathogens and much more besides. “I've seen two huge developments since I've been in science: CRISPR and PCR,” says John Schimenti, a geneticist at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. Like PCR, the gene-amplification method that revolutionized genetic engineering after its invention in 1985, “CRISPR is impacting the life sciences in so many ways,” he says.

More here.

Thursday Poem

I Will Consider my Cat Jeoffry

For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry.
For he is the servant of the Living God, duly and daily serving him.
For at the first glance of the glory of God in the East he worships in his way.
For is this done by wreathing his body seven times round with elegant quickness.
For then he leaps up to catch the musk, which is the blessing of God upon
**his prayer.
For he rolls upon prank to work it in.
For having done duty and received blessing he begins to consider himself.
For this he performs in ten degrees.
For first he looks upon his forepaws to see if they are clean.
For secondly he kicks up behind to clear away there.
For thirdly he works it upon stretch with the forepaws extended.
For fourthly he sharpens his paws by wood.
For fifthly he washes himself.
For sixthly he rolls upon wash.
For seventhly he fleas himself, that he may not be interrupted upon the beat.
For eighthly he rubs himself against a post.
For ninthly he looks up for his instructions.
For tenthly he goes in quest of food.
For having considered God and himself he will consider his neighbor.
For if he meets another cat he will kiss her in kindness.
For when he takes his prey he plays with it to give it a chance.
For one mouse in seven escapes by his dallying.
For when his day's work is done his business more properly begins.
For he keeps the Lord's watch in the night against the adversary.
For he counteracts the powers of darkness by his electrical skin and glaring eyes.
For he counteracts the Devil, who is death, by brisking about the life.
For in his morning orisons he loves the sun and the sun loves him.
For he is of the tribe of Tiger.
For the Cherub Cat is a term of the Angel Tiger.
For he has the subtlety and hissing of a serpent, which in goodness
**he suppresses.
For he will not do destruction if he is well-fed, neither will he spit
**without provocation.
For he purrs in thankfulness when God tells him he's a good Cat.
For he is an instrument for the children to learn benevolence upon.
For every house is incomplete without him, and a blessing is lacking in the spirit.
For the Lord commanded Moses concerning the cats at the departure of
**the Children of Israel from Egypt.
For every family had one cat at least in the bag.
For the English Cats are the best in Europe.
For he is the cleanest in the use of his forepaws of any quadruped.
For the dexterity of his defense is an instance of the love of God
**to him exceedingly.
For he is the quickest to his mark of any creature.
For he is tenacious of his point.
For he is a mixture of gravity and waggery.
For he knows that God is his Saviour.
For there is nothing sweeter than his peace when at rest.
For there is nothing brisker than his life when in motion.
For he is of the Lord's poor, and so indeed is he called by benevolence
**perpetually—Poor Jeoffry! poor Jeoffry! the rat has bit thy throat.
For I bless the name of the Lord Jesus that Jeoffry is better.
For the divine spirit comes about his body to sustain it in complete cat.
For his tongue is exceeding pure so that it has in purity what it wants in music.
For he is docile and can learn certain things.
For he can sit up with gravity, which is patience upon approbation.
For he can fetch and carry, which is patience in employment.
For he can jump over a stick, which is patience upon proof positive.
For he can spraggle upon waggle at the word of command.
For he can jump from an eminence into his master's bosom.
For he can catch the cork and toss it again.
For he is hated by the hypocrite and miser.
For the former is afraid of detection.
For the latter refuses the charge.
For he camels his back to bear the first notion of business.
For he is good to think on, if a man would express himself neatly.
For he made a great figure in Egypt for his signal services.
For he killed the Icneumon rat, very pernicious by land.
For his ears are so acute that they sting again.
For from this proceeds the passing quickness of his attention.
For by stroking of him I have found out electricity.
For I perceived God's light about him both wax and fire.
For the electrical fire is the spiritual substance which God sends from heaven
**to sustain the bodies both of man and beast.
For God has blessed him in the variety of his movements.
For, though he cannot fly, he is an excellent clamberer.
For his motions upon the face of the earth are more than any other quadruped.
For he can tread to all the measures upon the music.
For he can swim for life.
For he can creep.
by Christopher Smart
from “Jubilate Agno”

Another take

Five takeaways on Blatter’s resignation

Tunku Varadarajan in Politico:

ScreenHunter_1208 Jun. 04 11.39In the end, he Blattered to deceive.

After putting on the most brazen performance of soccer gamesmanship since Diego Maradona’s Hand of God in 1986, Sepp Blatter succumbed to the weight of world opinion — Vladimir Putin excepted — and announced his imminent departure from the post of president of FIFA. This, after conducting an election on Friday that saw him return to the post for an inglorious fifth time. The exercise was, it turns out, a last gasp of megalomaniacal defiance. Today, he quit with a whimper.

Here’s what the resignation of Blatter means for the game:

    1. Apart from proving that there is a God, Blatter’s departure offers soccer — and FIFA — the chance of a glorious, cathartic new beginning. We’re now in an “afterblatter” world in which everything — every jot and tittle — that bears his stamp, his imprimatur, is open to scrutiny. Without mincing words, that means that the awards to Russia and Qatar of the World Cups for 2018 and 2022, respectively, will have to be nullified. Those deals are dead. They were tainted beyond redemption, the product of a process that was suppurating with corruption.

More here.

on Peter Sloterdijk’s ‘Globes: Spheres Volume II: Macrosphereology’

9781584351603_0Joshua Mostafa at The Sydney Review of Books:

Reading the German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk is always enjoyable. Every page of Globes is littered with aphoristic bon mots (adroitly translated by Wieland Hoban), many of which could serve as the central insight of a chapter, or even the whole, of a less rich and ambitious text. This succinct and acerbic put-down of reductionism will suffice as an example: ‘modernity is the self-fulfilment of the analytical myth that gives the smallest parts precedence over their composites’. One might expect that this flair for the micro-unit of literary composition – the sentence – would lend itself to the work of a miniaturist, a writer of essays after the manner of Michel de Montaigne. But Sloterdijk does not confine himself to small pieces, writing books of varying sizes: Globes is probably his largest – over 1000 pages – and is itself only the middle volume in his magnum opus, the Spheres trilogy.

The publisher of Spheres, Semiotext(e), is best known for its English translations of French philosophy. Sloterdijk, though he writes in German, owes at least as much to French thinkers as German ones, and the German philosophers with whom he shows the most affinity are often shunned in Germany itself, due to the tarnishing of their reputations through association with the country’s shameful Nazi past – either directly, as in the case of Margin Heidegger, or by retrospective appropriation, as with Friedrich Nietzsche. To engage with these philosophers has come to be seen as disreputable, but a variety of French thinkers have built on the work of Nietzsche. As Sloterdijk puts it, ‘it was the great stroke of luck of my intellectual life that I encountered these French Nietzscheans at a point when it was inconceivable to read Nietzsche in Germany.’

more here.

The Last Days of Katherine Mansfield

MansfieldWebPierce Butler at Commonweal:

Katherine Mansfield—writer of short stories, friend and literary compatriot of Virginia Woolf and D. H. Lawrence—had a gift for arousing strong opinions. The reckless abandon with which Mans-field threw herself into sexual relationships with both men and women, and the acerbity of her tongue and pen, could provoke critics, family, and friends, not to mention her enemies. Critical estimates of Mansfield’s work—fewer than one hundred stories, an oeuvre curtailed by her premature death from tuberculosis at the age of thirty-four—have risen and fallen over the decades. Her stories fall into two categories: those set in the New Zealand of her childhood that contrast a corrupt adult world with the purity of the child’s experience; and those set elsewhere, frequently peopled by lonely and fearful young women whose attempts to confront their demons seem doomed to failure. Taken as a whole, the stories present a restless sensibility longing for the idyll of childhood and vainly seeking solace and security in adult love relationships.

Mansfield was a brilliant conversationalist who delighted in malicious wit, a writer with an exquisite sense of form who sometimes sacrificed honesty for aesthetic effect, and a freethinking woman whose bold exploration of her sexuality resulted in a number of liaisons that even her bohemian circle regarded as indiscreet. She found herself caught between the provincial Victorian values of her upbringing and a metropolitan world of literary self-expression in which art pointed the way to a thrilling new life.

more here.

Why Tomorrowland Should Never Come

Cdnassets.hwAaron Betsky at Architecture Magazine:

Why must the future always be so curvy and so Calatrava? The release of Tomorrowland [trailer], the Disney Studio’s confused fairytale about possible futures, reinforces the idea, built into the Studio’s namesake ride—and evident in just about every sci-fi film of the last few decades—that our destiny is to live, work, and play in buildings that swoop, swell, and surge into the sky with no respect for right angles. The film’s centerpiece is a city that does less to evoke Disney’s olde version of what is to be than it takes from what is already under construction or built in Dubai and Shanghai and extrapolates it to a gravity- and humanity-free extreme.

Without giving away too much of the plot, the city in question is a mirage, which appears as a vision beyond a wheat field: Oz as the ultimate Edge City, branded by Tesla and Coca-Cola, where people don’t do anything so much as they look fabulous in designer clothes (I think I saw everything from retro Jil Sander to Versace) as they whiz around in magnetically levitated transports and with jet packs. At its heart, one that the film reveals most clearly when it takes a darker turn, is a green-screened version of the City of the Arts and Sciences project by Santiago Calatrava, FAIA, and the late Spanish architect Félix Candela, in Valencia, Spain.

more here.

Dusting the Furniture of Our Minds

Michael Marder in the New York Times:

StoneWeb-blog480Dust is everywhere. We contribute to its multiplication through our polluting industries, by wearing clothes and using things around us, and in the course of merely living — shedding skin cells, hair, and other byproducts of our life.

But we also are it. Both the Bible and William Shakespeare would have us believe as much. “Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return,” Adam and Eve are told in Genesis. Hamlet, in his nihilistic soliloquy, asks rhetorically about the human, “What is this quintessence of dust?” Science, of course, has provided some actual basis for this notion in findings indicating that the most fundamental material of life on earth originated in the “dust” of long-dead stars.

In any case, be it prophetic, poetic or scientific, the message is clear: We are in a continual flux of growth and decay, but the latter will win out, and each human body’s end state will be the same — a collection of mere particles, dispersed.

So what is the relation between the dust outside us and the dust that we are?

Most of us lack the courage to examine ourselves with Biblical or Shakespearean frankness. We fail to understand that, as we clash with external dust, we displace existential anxieties and confront our mortal, rootless, restless selves, albeit no longer discernable as such.

Let me give you an example of this strange displacement. Since household dust is comprised, in large part, of the material traces of our bodily existence, the endeavor to eliminate it strives, quite unconsciously, to expunge vestiges of ourselves.

More here.

I’m a liberal professor, and my liberal students terrify me


Edward Schlosser in Vox (image by Shawn Rossi):

I have intentionally adjusted my teaching materials as the political winds have shifted. (I also make sure all my remotely offensive or challenging opinions, such as this article, are expressed either anonymously or pseudonymously). Most of my colleagues who still have jobs have done the same. We've seen bad things happen to too many good teachers — adjuncts getting axed because their evaluations dipped below a 3.0, grad students being removed from classes after a single student complaint, and so on.

I once saw an adjunct not get his contract renewed after students complained that he exposed them to “offensive” texts written by Edward Said and Mark Twain. His response, that the texts were meant to be a little upsetting, only fueled the students' ire and sealed his fate. That was enough to get me to comb through my syllabi and cut out anything I could see upsetting a coddled undergrad, texts ranging from Upton Sinclair to Maureen Tkacik — and I wasn't the only one who made adjustments, either.

I am frightened sometimes by the thought that a student would complain again like he did in 2009. Only this time it would be a student accusing me not of saying something too ideologically extreme — be it communism or racism or whatever — but of not being sensitive enough toward his feelings, of some simple act of indelicacy that's considered tantamount to physical assault. AsNorthwestern University professor Laura Kipnis writes, “Emotional discomfort is [now] regarded as equivalent to material injury, and all injuries have to be remediated.” Hurting a student's feelings, even in the course of instruction that is absolutely appropriate and respectful, can now get a teacher into serious trouble.

More here.

Catie Disabato’s “The Ghost Network” perfectly nails the relationship between pop culture and American youth

Lydia Kiesling in Slate:

GHOST_ILLO.jpg.CROP.promovar-mediumlargeIf you’ve ever ridden public transportation in a major city, you’ve seen hip young women with their headphones and their lace-up boots, their black jeans and faux fur, their deep V’s and slightly tortured vibes. Young women are always the locus of attention, both subtle and unsubtle, in any given space, but these beautiful tousled birds arouse particular interest; men crane their necks to look at their tattoos, less stylish women wonder if they too should attempt a bold red lip or, god forbid, a backless T. I see a young woman like this and wonder where she is going, what work she does. I wonder what she is listening to and the source of her intent expression.

If you read The Ghost Network, Catie Disabato’s excellent debut novel, you know that this girl might look preoccupied because she’s tracking a missing pop star to a secret underground train station, where the pop star may or may not have been taken by devotees of a European anarcho-surrealist movement of the 1960s. She may be worrying about the possibility of grave bodily harm at the hands of a revanchist splinter group. She may be pondering her death. She’s probably listening to the National.

To arrive at this awareness, you have to go through a number of turnstiles. In fact, there are so many consecutive entrances to The Ghost Network that I initially found it difficult to get into the story—as though the novel, like a secret underground portal, were disguised by its architect to look like something of little interest. The book begins with a note from the author, “Catie Disabato”—who could be, but more likely is not, the real author Catie Disabato—explaining that the text before you is one Disabato inherited from a man named Cyrus Archer. Archer’s manuscript begins with an epigraph from the rock critic Ellen Willis, before Archer explains in his own prologue that his book arose from a New Yorker article written by a former lover. Then we have a second epigraph, a quote from the Molly Metropolis from a purported article in the New York Times Magazine.

More here.

Consciousness Began When the Gods Stopped Speaking

Veronique Greenwood in Nautilus:

ConsciousJulian Jaynes was living out of a couple of suitcases in a Princeton dorm in the early 1970s. He must have been an odd sight there among the undergraduates, some of whom knew him as a lecturer who taught psychology, holding forth in a deep baritone voice. He was in his early 50s, a fairly heavy drinker, untenured, and apparently uninterested in tenure. His position was marginal. “I don’t think the university was paying him on a regular basis,” recalls Roy Baumeister, then a student at Princeton and today a professor of psychology at Florida State University. But among the youthful inhabitants of the dorm, Jaynes was working on his masterpiece, and had been for years. From the age of 6, Jaynes had been transfixed by the singularity of conscious experience. Gazing at a yellow forsythia flower, he’d wondered how he could be sure that others saw the same yellow as he did. As a young man, serving three years in a Pennsylvania prison for declining to support the war effort, he watched a worm in the grass of the prison yard one spring, wondering what separated the unthinking earth from the worm and the worm from himself. It was the kind of question that dogged him for the rest of his life, and the book he was working on would grip a generation beginning to ask themselves similar questions.

The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, when it finally came out in 1976, did not look like a best-seller. But sell it did. It was reviewed in science magazines and psychology journals, Time, The New York Times, and the Los Angeles Times. It was nominated for a National Book Award in 1978. New editions continued to come out, as Jaynes went on the lecture circuit. Jaynes died of a stroke in 1997; his book lived on. In 2000, another new edition hit the shelves. It continues to sell today.

More here.

Missing link found between brain, immune system

From KurzweilAI:

Lymphatic-systemOverrturning decades of textbook teaching, researchers at the University of Virginia School of Medicine have discovered that the brain is directly connected to the immune system by vessels previously thought not to exist. The finding could have significant implications for the study and treatment of neurological diseases ranging from autism to Alzheimer’s disease to multiple sclerosis. “It changes entirely the way we perceive the neuro-immune interaction. We always perceived it before as something esoteric that can’t be studied. But now we can ask mechanistic questions.” said Jonathan Kipnis, PhD, professor in the UVA Department of Neuroscience and director of UVA’s Center for Brain Immunology and Glia (BIG). “We believe that for every neurological disease that has an immune component to it, these vessels may play a major role,” Kipnis said. “Hard to imagine that these vessels would not be involved in a [neurological] disease with an immune component.” The discovery was made possible by the work of Antoine Louveau, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow in Kipnis’ lab, who noticed vessel-like patterns in the distribution of immune cells on his slides of a mouse’s meninges — the membranes covering the brain. So how did the brain’s lymphatic vessels manage to escape notice all this time? Kipnis described them as “very well hidden” — they follow a major blood vessel down into the sinuses, an area difficult to image. “It’s so close to the blood vessel, you just miss it… if you don’t know what you’re after.”

Alzheimer’s, Autism, MS and Beyond

The unexpected presence of the lymphatic vessels raises a tremendous number of questions that now need answers, both about the workings of the brain and the diseases that plague it. For example: “In Alzheimer’s, there are accumulations of big protein chunks in the brain,” Kipnis said. “We think they may be accumulating in the brain because they’re not being efficiently removed by these vessels.” He noted that the vessels look different with age, so the role they play in aging is another avenue to explore. And there’s an enormous array of other neurological diseases, from autism to multiple sclerosis, that must be reconsidered in light of the presence of something science insisted did not exist.

More here.

The false dichotomy of trigger warnings

Massimo Pigliucci in Scientia Salon:

Pigliucci-webThere has been lots of talk about so-called “trigger warnings” lately. Although they originated outside the university (largely on feminist message boards in the ‘90s, and then in the blogosphere [1]), within the academy this is the idea that professors should issue warnings to their students about potentially disturbing material that they are about to read or otherwise be exposed to. The warnings are necessary, advocates say, because such material may “trigger” episodes of discomfort, emotional pain, or outright post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

This is clearly a crucial issue for a teacher such as myself, who is responsible for contributing to the education of scores of students every semester, and who is of course also concerned about their welfare and their thriving as human beings. So I read a lot, and widely (meaning both pro and con), about the issue, and have talked to colleagues and a number of students, in order to make up my mind not just in a theoretical sense, but also as guidance to my own actual practice in the classroom.

One of the most recent episodes concerning the controversy over trigger warnings (henceforth, TW) featured four Columbia University students belonging to the local Multicultural Affairs Advisory Board, who wrote a letter to the Columbia Spectator [2] arguing that exposure to the writings of the classic Roman poet Ovid should have come with TW because they contain references to rape.

More here.

Will Computers Redefine the Roots of Math?

Kevin Hartnett in Quanta:

ScreenHunter_1207 Jun. 02 17.41On 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.

More here.