Milestones in black history that Virginia McLaurin lived through

Syreeta McFadden in The Guardian:

“A black president. Yay. A black wife.”

Morrison_Nobel_PrizeBack in 2008, on that balmy November night, I stepped outside of the Blue and Gold bar in New York’s East Village and made one phone call after the network news called the election, naming Barack Obama the 44th president of the United States. I called my grandmother in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. We were both ecstatic, yet overwhelmed, in that happy-sad kind of way. “In your lifetime Granny,” I said to her in a kind of awe. “In your lifetime. In your lifetime,” I repeated over and over to her. My grandmother was a child during the Great Depression; her parents paid poll taxes to vote in local and national elections in Jim Crow-segregated Tennessee. “In my lifetime,” she responded, “In my lifetime.” To watch 106-year-old Virginia McLaurin’s pure elation in meeting the nation’s first African American president and first lady is more than just confection. For black women born early in the 20th century, when the nation suppressed the civil, social and economic liberties of African Americans, when American society actively resisted the humanity of African Americans, to be alive and witness this particular historical moment – McLaurin’s dance of joy is celebration hard earned and won. My grandmother, like McLaurin, never expected to live to see the day.

During the 10 decades of McLaurin’s life, black women have been both critical actors and witnesses in the great story of African Americans in the United States. They helped to create a world for this moment. While the list below is far from comprehensive, it is but a modest sampling of black women who were leaders and vanguard, women we should remember in shaping American life and culture this black history month.

More here. (Note: At least one post will be dedicated to honor Black History Month throughout February)

Superintelligence vs. superstupidity

From KurzweilAI:

Owl-eyesIn “The A.I. Anxiety” Sunday (12/27), the Washington Post concisely summarized the risks implicit in superintelligence … and more worrisome, in “superstupidity”: “There is no one person who understands exactly how these [intelligent computer] systems work or are operating at any given moment. Throw in elements of autonomy, and things can go wrong quickly and disastrously.” In other words: stupid people + superintelligent machines —> superstupidity.

Power grid: FAIL. Example: A yearlong investigation by the AP reveals that Iranian, Chinese, Russian, and other hackers have accessed the “aging, outdated” and vulnerable U.S. power grid (with some facilities still using Fortran, Windows 95, and floppy disks), downloaded critical drawings, and even took over the controls of a large utility’s wind farm. Got solar + backup batteries?

Are you “doubleplusungood”? Speaking of total control of power, Ant Financial in China has launched “Sesame Credit scores” on Weibo and WeChat, says Quartz — following a government directive last summer calling for the establishment of a “social credit system.” The service apparently evaluates one’s purchasing and spending habits to derive a credit score, which is “evidence that the Chinese government is enacting a scheme that will monitor citizens’ finances,” says the ACLU and others, warning that “one’s political views or ‘morality’ might raise or lower one’s score.”

More here.


Over at the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research:

The Podcast for Social Research returns with an episode centered on theories of the radical. Departing from Emily Bazelon’s recent New York Times piece, “Who’s Really ‘Radical’?,” Suzy, Tony, and Ajay discuss the etymological origins, historical weight, and contemporary political force of the category of radicalism, asking, in the course of the conversation, who and what we call radical and what it means when we do. Case studies range from the Red Decade to political Islam.

You can download here by right-clicking and “save as” or look us up on iTunes.

A. O. Scott’s ‘Better Living Through Criticism’

Daniel Mendelsohn in the New York Times:

21subMENDELSOHN-blog427Was God the first critic?

We tend, of course, to think of him as the first great artist — or, perhaps, artiste. Certainly the Bible’s description of the circumstances in which Creation was created — the sudden flash of inspiration, the heroic decision to make something where there had been nothing, the struggle to wrest order out of chaos, the collapse into exhausted rest after a daemonic outpouring of energy — has colored our romantic notions about creativity and creators ever since. Just as it has, by implication, informed our ideas about critics: as parasites on the body of creativity, as destroyers rather than builders, “the snake in the garden,” as one eminent practitioner of the art of criticism has put it, “of what should be our simplest pleasures.”

And yet, as A. O. Scott — the critic in question — points out in the first chapter of his lively, often impassioned, occasionally breezy defense of a profession that many see as headed to extinction, the Almighty had barely finished creating when he started in on the activity that is central to criticism, which is judgment. (Scott likes to quote the Greeks, from the poet Hesiod to Plato to Aristotle, but omits to mention their most salient contribution to his subject, which is the word “critic” itself, derived from the verb “to judge.”) The author reminds us that following each stage of creation, God “saw that it was good.” The question that Scott, a chief movie critic for The New York Times, slyly raises is, “How did he know?”

More here.

Quantum weirdness may hide an orderly reality after all

Anil Ananthaswamy in New Scientist:

A5f9f8-1200x800Often brushed aside like a forgotten stepchild, a 64-year-old theory of quantum mechanics may now share the stage with its more well-regarded siblings. If it holds up, it might lend support to ideas that the universe is improbably interconnected across vast distances.

The theory, by physicist David Bohm, has been resurrected after researchers carried out experiments on photons that seemed to support it.

The behaviour of the quantum world has befuddled physicists for nearly a century. “We have had geniuses working on it and we still have a problem,” says Basil Hiley, a quantum physicist at Birkbeck College at the University of London, who worked with Bohm until the latter’s death in 1992.

Unlike the classical world, with its clockwork precision and pleasing predictability, the quantum world is rife with randomness.

The famous illustration is the double-slit experiment: if you fire photons at two slits, our classical intuition expects each to pass through one or the other slit and hit a screen on the other side, making a single mark indicative of its particle nature. But when you try it, the photons create an interference pattern of light and dark bands on the screen, as if each photon behaved like a wave and passed through both slits simultaneously.

The dominant explanation of such behaviour is called the Copenhagen interpretation, which states that the question of whether a photon is a wave or a particle has no meaning until you make a measurement – and then it becomes one or the other depending on which property you measure. The other favoured explanation is the many-worlds interpretation, under which each possible state of the photon becomes manifest in an alternate world.

More here.

Why Baby Boomers Don’t Get Bernie Sanders

Bryan Williams in The New Republic:

E810166e81b222b34dad838934f793716cc5c44aThe Democratic primary is being defined—and could be decided—by a generational divide. Young voters are flocking to Bernie Sanders, as countless articles point out, and the results in Iowa back this up: Sanders won caucus voters under 30 by an astounding 70-point margin, while Hillary Clinton won those over 65 by 43 points. The theories given for this divide are myriad. Many young voters see Clinton as a corrupt or untrustworthy insider, whereas Sanders “seems sincere.” Many older voters, meanwhile, find Sanders’s policies impractical and see in Clinton a historic opportunity to elect the first female president. But all these arguments seem to agree on one thing: Sanders is leading a semi-socialist insurgency against the party establishment.

Surveying one hundred years of history, though, the question is not why younger voters are embracing Sanders’s populist revolution, but why the Baby Boomer generation came to believe that Bill and Hillary Clinton—with their close ties to big business—should become the standard-bearers for the nation’s liberal party. In other words, Bernie’s millennial army isn’t the generational exception. Hillary’s Boomers are.

More here.


Climate-change1Paul Mason at Literary Hub:

To remain under the two-degree threshold, we—as a global population—must burn no more than 886 billion tons of carbon between the years 2000 and 2049 (according to the International Energy Agency). But the global oil and gas companies have declared the existence of 2.8 trillion tons of carbon reserves, and their shares are valued as if those reserves are burnable. As the Carbon Tracker Initiative warned investors: “They need to understand that 60 to 80 percent of coal, oil and gas reserves of listed firms are unburnable”—that is, if we burn them, the atmosphere will warm to a catastrophic degree.

Yet rising energy prices are a market signal. They tell energy firms that it’s a good idea to invest in new and more expensive ways of finding carbon. In 2011, they invested $674 billion on exploration and development of fossil fuels: tar sands, fracking and deep-sea oil deposits. Then, as global tensions increased, Saudi Arabia decided to collapse the price of oil, with the aim of destroying America’s new hydrocarbon industries, and in the process bankrupting Putin’s Russia.

This, too, acted as a market signal to American drivers: buy more cars and do more miles. Clearly, somewhere, the market as a signaling mechanism has gone wrong.

more here.

The ‘hip’ world of Sassy

Tumblr_l1tp2jxvbp1qz7q2tThomas Frank at The Baffler:

Sassy does not want you to think that it is just another version of the traditional teenage girls’ magazine. On the contrary, as its publicity kit and an enamored media anxiously maintain, Sassy is a publishing phenomenon, a daring departure from convention, a call to postmodern arms for the youth of America. Nowhere in the spectrum of American journalism has the notion of “alternative” been more reverently enshrined, more fully articulated as thebelle ideal for the consuming millions. While its competitors still offer 1950s-style hints on cooking and pleasing boys, Sassy, since its founding in 1988, has leapt headlong into “underground” culture—reviewing the most daring indie-label bands, endorsing the latest permutations of “multiculturalism,” outlining the most “authentic” street fashions. So tuned-in is the publication to the latest dispensation of rebel hip that a 1993 Spin magazine feature called “A to Z of Alternative Culture” included a definition of “Sassyism” that is appropriately thick with references to consumer goods (Sassyism: “Love of Kim Gordon, striped jeans, John Fluevog shoes, wide black belts … grrl punk, fanzines, and henna”). For rebellion, generically defined, is Sassy’s image-in-trade. With its impudent title spattered across the cover like some defiant graffiti from ‘68, its jackboot-wearing young writers, its celebration of the new breed of celebrities who wear sideburns and grimy locks, multiple earrings, flannel shirts, and leather jackets, Sassyclaims to have revolutionized the genre of teenage journalism. It has won the favor of the nation’s savviest media watchers, and for good reason: Sassy’s peculiarly massified, mall-inflected version of the traditional avant-garde fetish for outrage perfectly epitomizes the strange turn taken by American mass culture in the last twenty years.

more here.

How to Travel with a Salmon

UmbertoecosalmonUmberto Eco at The Paris Review (1994):

My recent journey was brief: one day in Stockholm and three in London. In Stockholm, taking advantage of a free hour, I bought a smoked salmon, an enormous one, dirt cheap. It was carefully packaged in plastic, but I was told that, if I was traveling, I would be well-advised to keep it refrigerated. Just try.

Happily, in London, my publisher made me a reservation in a deluxe hotel, a room provided with minibar. But on arriving at the hotel, I have the impression of entering a foreign legation in Peking during the Boxer rebellion.

Whole families are camping out in the lobby; travelers wrapped in blankets are sleeping amid their luggage. I question the staff, all of them Indians, except for a few Malayans, and I am told that just yesterday, in this grand hotel, a computerized system was installed and, before all the kinks could be eliminated, it broke down for two hours. There was no way of telling which rooms were occupied or which were free. I would have to wait.

more here.

Tuesday Poem

…. I have walked along many roads,
and opened paths through brush,
I have sailed over a hundred seas
and tied up on a hundred shores.

…. Everywhere I’ve gone I’ve seen
excursions of sadness,
angry and melancholy
drunkards with black shadows,

…. and academics in offstage clothes
who watch, say nothing, and think
the know, because they do not drink wine
in the ordinary bars.

…. Evil men who walk around
polluting the earth . . .

…. And everywhere I’ve been I’ve seen
men who dance and play,
when they can, and work
the few inches of ground they have.

…. If they turn up somewhere,
they never ask where they are.
When they take trips, they ride
on the back of old mules.

…. They don’t know how to hurry,
not even on holidays.
They drink wine, if there is some,
if not, cool water.

…. These men are the good ones,
who love, work, walk and dream.
And on a day no different from the rest
they lie down beneath the earth.

by Antonio Machado
from Times Alone
Wesleyan University Press

25 Black Athletes Who Changed the World

Jose Martinez in Complex:

JackCould you imagine sports without the Williams sisters or LeBron James? It's pretty difficult to picture, huh? But, as we all know, there once was a time when black athletes weren't allowed to be on the same playing field as white people. Fortunately, there were African-American players who ignored the racial slurs and death threats that were hurled their way and focused on making the sports world a better, equal place. As time progressed, there become exceptional athletes like Michael Jordan andTiger Woods, who further solidified African-Americans' place among the best to ever play in their respective sport. We take a look at those that forever changed the game, past and present. From the aforementioned names of Jordan and Woods to legends like Jackie Robinson and Althea Gibson, these are 25 Black Athletes Who Changed the World.

Jack Johnson

Sport (Years Played): Boxing (1897-1938)
After becoming the first black heavyweight boxing champion, Jack Johnson faced the undefeated white boxer James Jeffries in 1910. Before they met in the ring, Jeffries took a personal jab at Johnson saying that he was “going into this fight for the sole purpose of proving that a white man is better than a Negro.” But in the 15th round of their match, Jack knocked his opponent out and handed Jeffries the first loss of his career. The result triggered riots across the U.S.

More here. (Note: At least one post will be dedicated to honor Black History Month throughout February)

Scientists Ponder the Prospect of Contagious Cancer

George Johnson in The New York Times:

CancerFor all its peculiar horror, cancer comes with a saving grace. If nothing else can stop a tumor’s mad evolution, the cancer ultimately dies with its host. Everything the malignant cells have learned about outwitting the patient’s defenses — and those of the oncologists — is erased. The next case of cancer, in another victim, must start anew. Imagine if instead, cancer cells had the ability to press on to another body. A cancer like that would have the power to metastasize not just from organ to organ, but from person to person, evolving deadly new skills along the way. While there is no sign of an imminent threat, several recent papers suggest that the eventual emergence of a contagious human cancer is in the realm of medical possibility. This would not be a disease, like cervical cancer, that is set off by the spread of viruses, but rather one in which cancer cells actually travel from one person to another and thrive in their new location.

So far this is known to have happened only under the most unusual circumstances. A 19-year-old laboratory worker who pricked herself with a syringe of colon cancer cells developed a tumor in her hand. A surgeon acquired a cancer from his patient after accidentally cutting himself during an operation. There are also cases of malignant cells being transferred from one person to another through an organ transplant or from a woman to her fetus.

More here.

The Bad, the Ugly And (Yes!) The Good

by Colin Eatock

Sheet-music“Contemporary classical music?” To some, the phrase may sound like a contradiction in terms. But, believe it or not, classical music aspires to be a happening, up-to-date art form – laying claim to the place at the cultural table next to contemporary art, film and literature.

Unfortunately, for all its bravado, contemporary classical music is in a bad way, and has been for some time now. Its composers and specialist-performers toil in obscurity, its core-audience is tiny, and its visibility within mainstream culture is just about nil. Like a hospital patient kept alive on a life-support system, contemporary classical music is largely maintained by university music departments. Most symphony orchestras and opera companies – knowing only too well where their bread is buttered – perform it only occasionally.

However, with my use of the word “unfortunately,” I don't mean to suggest there's anything especially unjust about contemporary classical music's marginal status. Cultures have always embraced what they like and rejected what they don't – and no amount of quasi-moralistic hectoring about what people ought to like is likely to change that. Also, on a personal note, I don't feel especially inclined to take the world to task on this issue. I believe I can speak for a great many classical music fans when I say that most of the classical music written in the last fifty years deserves an early death in an unmarked grave. Many concert-goers find most contemporary music a painful experience – and, as a music critic, I feel their pain.

Rather, my “unfortunately” was meant, partly, to express my concern about what the ongoing crisis of newness means for the future of classical music as a whole. The lack of a substantial body of well-known and culturally validated new works is, I believe, an existential threat to the entire art form: an artistic culture that immerses itself entirely in its own past will wither into irrelevance. Yet I've noticed that some people in the “mainstream” classical-music world see nothing to worry about here. They seem to think (if they think about the issue at all) that all they need to do is avoid the new stuff and play more Mozart and the problem will simply evaporate. This is head-in-sand thinking.

That said, my “unfortunately” was also meant as a lament for the few living composers whose works, I believe, are beautiful, compelling, culturally engaging and worthy of appreciation on a broad scale. But finding these precious needles in such a large haystack is an arduous business.

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Concussion: Seeking the next Big Tobacco

by Saurabh Jha

ScreenHunter_1711 Feb. 22 10.22As a general rule, if you keep clobbering a body part it may, in the long run, get damaged. This is hardly rocket science. Soldiers marching long distances can get a stress fracture known as “March fracture.” The brain is no exception. Boxers can get “dementia pugilistica.” This is why we frown upon people who bang their heads against brick walls.

Footballers are at risk of brain damage, specifically a neurodegenerative disease known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). CTE was described in a football player by forensic pathologist, Bennet Omalu, who performed an autopsy on Michael Webster, a former Pittsburgh Steeler. Webster died of a heart attack but had a rapid and mysterious cognitive decline. Webster’s brain appeared normal at first. When Omalu used a special technique, he found a protein, known as tau, in the brain.

Omalu’s discovery inspired the movie Concussion in which Will Smith plays the pathologist. The Fresh Prince plays convincingly a god-fearing, soft-spoken but brilliant physician, who is up against incredulous colleagues and the National Football League (NFL). The NFL clearly has a lot to lose from Omalu’s discovery. However, the director’s attempt to emulate The Insider, where big tobacco tailgates the scientist, fails at many levels.

This is not just because the NFL is not really Big Tobacco. The NFL is adept at playing to the gallery. Recently, it carried a pink logo to increase awareness of breast cancer. The NFL could have chosen prostate cancer. But solidarity with sisters is better PR than showing solidarity with brothers.

The reason why Concussion fails to ignite memories of Big Tobacco is that there is still a lot we don’t know about CTE, or the precise risks of banging one’s head. Some who play contact sports develop CTE, but many are unaffected. CTE has also been reported in people who haven’t had concussive injuries.

Omalu’s discovery has predictably touched our inner sanctum of social justice. Some want college football to be banned. Pitchforks have been raised full mast against the NFL. A narrative has developed in which the rich, greedy and unethical NFL conscripts young, hapless, unsuspecting men from poor families to inevitable brain damage. Righteous indignation is especially delicious when backed by science.

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Monday Poem

The Milky Way, is destined someday to collide with the next-nearest spiral galaxy,
in the direction of the constellation Andromeda. When they collide, our sun will
likely be flung into a new region of galactic space. But when is that
……………………………………………………………….. —

When Andromeda and the Milky Way Collide

the night sky now is both
a starry spray of mother’s milk
and points of light as bright
as your last kiss

in its spray certain densities exist
think of them as knots in space
or mind

in them space (or mind) insists
that nebulae twist and pulses race

in them you may perceive
articulations of another’s face
or of one concealed behind
a veil of starry lace

attitude is key
and so is grace

but when Andromeda
and the Milky way collide things will change
any status quo will not abide
(you can never count on it to stay in place)
so on that day, in terms of hearts,
there could be tears

but you needn’t be concerned for us
since astrophysicists who’ve counted well
tell us this collision will not happen for
four billion years, and that, my love,
is quite a spell

Jim Culleny


Atoms Old and New, 1: Atoms in Antiquity

by Paul Braterman

What is now proved was once only imagin’d – William Blake

Really important ideas in science are not the work of a single individual or even a single generation. The idea of an atom, for instance, was developed by ancient Greek philosophers, revived by eighteenth century chemists to make sense of their discoveries about the composition of matter, and used by nineteenth century physicists to explain the effect of temperature and pressure on gases. Our modern idea of molecules, formed with definite shapes by joining atoms together according to definite rules, was developed by chemists studying naturally occurring substances in the late nineteenth century. In the early twentieth century, the structure of the atom itself was explained in terms of more fundamental particles, while the last half century has seen advances that make it possible for us to directly sense, and even move around, individual atoms.


Roman fresco, illustrating front cover of R.E. Latham's excellent translation

Atomic theory dates back to the pre-Socratic philosophers, especially Leucippus and Democritus, who wrote and taught more than four hundred years BCE. The works of the pre-Socratics survive only in fragments, and in quotations by later authors. For example, Epicurus, some 130 years later, built this theory into his unified view of the world and morality. The views of Epicurus were beautifully expressed by the Roman poet Lucretius, who lived at the same time as Julius Caesar, in his great work De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of the Universe). According to this ancient atomic theory, atoms are eternal and indestructible. All forms of matter are built up from a relatively small number of kinds of atoms.

What led the early atomists to theories so remote from simple appearances? Greek philosophers were greatly puzzled by the phenomena of change and motion. If something is real, how can it be transformed into something that it is not? If something is in one place, how can it move, since that would imply that it was no longer in that place? Besides, how can anything move without displacing something (if only the air) that is already there, in which case which one moves first? There are serious problems here, that were not properly solved until the mathematics of fluid flow and the theory of limits were developed in the 18th and 19th Centuries.

One radical approach to the problems posed by change is to say that change itself is an illusion, and that the world of experience, in which we live and act, grow and die, is in some important sense unreal. Plato was influenced by this approach when he compared knowledge gained through the senses to a mere shadow-play on the walls of a cave. Such a view is deeply hostile to science, which relies on observation, and the influence of Plato and his followers was to greatly hinder the development of scientific thinking.

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Let’s Take A Walk

by Carol A. Westbrook

When I was child, I knew every square inch of the streets in my Chicago neighborhood. I could tell you which trees grew where, which houses had the grumpy people to avoid on Halloween, which grass patches had four-leaf clovers, which stretch of sidewalk had the most black chewing-gum spots, and which Neighborhood sidewalkplaygrounds had the fastest slides. It was my world, a world of texture and wonder. I knew the detail so well because my school friends and I walked the half-mile home from school every day. Of course, that was back in the 1950's, when children were expected to walk home after school, and some of us even went home for lunch. The neighborhoods were safe then because everyone knew everyone else, and there were so many people on foot that they could look out for the kids.

Old house bestEven today, I enjoy walking through the streets of my current neighborhood in Wilkes-Barre, PA. Come along with me and I'll show you things you wouldn't otherwise notice in a car. We can peer into the living rooms of grand houses, such as the one on the right, once owned by a politician or a wealthy coal mine-owner whose mine has long since been abandoned. Some of these stately homes have been gentrified, like mine, while others are derelict. I'll point out some very big, very old trees–and a small but thriving dawn redwood newly planted in a municipal park. We'll read the historical markers about Indian chiefs long dead, whose people have disappeared from our midst. Railroad_bridge_over_the_West_Branch_Susquehanna_River_in_Lewisburg We'll cross a bridge over the mighty Susquehanna River, and then walk over the levee into the bottomlands under the rusting train trestle bridge, where frogs jump and catfish hunt them–just a half-mile from the city center.

Recently I re-visited my old neighborhood in Chicago and walked home from school again. Fifty years later, and I still remembered much of the detail. A few of my favorite trees were still standing, much increased in girth. The penny-candy stores were gone from the corners, but Al's tavern was still there (with a new name, but the same old signs). Sadly, most of the houses had barred windows, and all the yards had locked gates. I was the only person on foot. Times have changed.

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