Joyce Carol Oates in The New York Times:

EdnaEdna O’Brien’s boldly imagined and harrowing new novel, “The Little Red Chairs” — her 23rd work of fiction since “The Country Girls” (1960) — is both an exploration of those themes of Irish provincial life from the perspective of girls and women for which she has become acclaimed and a radical departure, a work of alternate history in which the devastation of a war-torn Central European country intrudes upon the “primal innocence, lost to most places in the world,” of rural Ireland. Here, in addition to O’Brien’s celebrated gifts of lyricism and mimetic precision, is a new, unsettling fabulist vision that suggests Kafka more than Joyce, as her portrait of the psychopath “warrior poet” Vladimir Dragan suggests Nabokov in his darker, less playful mode. Should we not recognize immediately the sinister “Dr. Vladimir Dragan of Montenegro,” the author has placed this poignant passage as an epigraph: “On the 6th of April 2012, to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the start of the siege of Sarajevo by Bosnian Serb forces, 11,541 red chairs were laid out in rows along the 800 meters of the Sarajevo high street. One empty chair for every Sarajevan killed during the 1,425 days of siege. Six hundred and forty-three small chairs represented the children killed by snipers and the heavy artillery fired from the surrounding mountains.”

Like a figure in a malevolent Irish fairy tale, a mysterious stranger appears one day seemingly out of nowhere on a bank of a tumultuous river in western Ireland, in a “freezing backwater that passes for a town and is called Cloonoila.” The stran­ger is himself “mesmerized” by the “manic glee” of the deafening water. Soon, the curious, credulous inhabitants of Cloonoila fall one by one under the spell of Dragan, “Vuk,” or “Dr. Vlad,” a professed poet, exile, visionary, “healer and sex therapist.” To one, he resembles a “holy man with a white beard and white hair, in a long black coat”; so priestly, one might “genuflect.” To another, he is a figure of hope: “Maybe he’ll bring a bit of romance into our lives.” Schoolchildren think he looks “a bit funny in a long black smock, with his white beard,” but consider him harmless. The village schoolteacher is suspicious, suggesting that the stran­ger may be a kind of Rasputin, another notorious “visionary and a healer,” but no one chooses to listen.

More here.

The great mystery of mathematics is its lack of mystery


Scott Aaronson in Aeon:

In one sense, there’s less mystery in mathematics than there is in any other human endeavour. In math, we can really understand things, in a deeper way than we ever understand anything else. (When I was younger, I used to reassure myself during suspense movies by silently reciting the proof of some theorem: here, at least, was a certainty that the movie couldn’t touch.) So how is it that many people, notably including mathematicians, feel that there’s something ‘mysterious’ about this least mysterious of subjects? What do they mean?

There are certainly mysteries that exist within math. For starters, there are the thousands of unsolved problems, assertions that no one can prove or disprove, sometimes despite decades or centuries of effort. Although many of these problems are deep and important, a small example will do for now: no one has proved that, as you go further out in the decimal digits of π=3.141592653589…, the digits 0 through 9 occur with equal frequency.

Yet, for reasons that apply to many other unsolved mathematical problems, it’s debatable whether to call this a ‘mystery’. What would really be mysterious, one wants to say, would be if the digits didn’t occur with equal frequency! The whole challenge is to give airtight proof that what does happen is what anyone with common sense, after thinking the matter over for a bit, would conclude almost certainly must happen. As Jordan Ellenberg, a mathematician at the University of Wisconsin, wrote, a dirty secret in mathematics is that many unsolved problems have a similar flavour: they’re less about mysterious coincidences than about the lack of them.

Take, for example, the Twin Primes Conjecture, which holds that there are infinitely many pairs of prime numbers separated by 2 (such as 3 and 5, or 11 and 13). Ellenberg explains that, for this conjecture to be true, there doesn’t need to be any mysterious ‘force’ pulling primes together; there just needs not to be a mysterious force pushing them apart. Or take the Riemann Hypothesis, which states that the infinitely many non-trivial roots of a certain complex function all lie on a single line. When it’s stated that way, the hypothesis does sound like a mystery. Why should infinitely many numbers all happen to line up like that?

More here.

There is gold in Charles Taylor’s new work on language—a pity it’s so hard to find

Julian Baggini in Prospect:

Mouthsequence3-620x207One of the paradoxes of creativity is that originality tends towards sameness and similarity. What makes a Wagner opera stand out from others is also what makes it unmistakably Wagnerian.

Philosophy is no different. Its greatest practitioners have a singular vision which forms a coherent whole, and so all their individual works tend to be variations on a theme. The more of that whole we have already seen, the more familiar new parts will already seem, which is certainly the case with Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor’s latest work, The Language Animal.

Taylor, the author of Sources of the Self (1989) and A Secular Age (2007), has consistently argued against the kind of reductive naturalism that attempts to divide the world into discrete atoms of understanding that require no context, no history, no narrative. While such pure, pared-down accounts might work for some natural sciences, it is a hopelessly simplistic way of understanding the domain of human meanings and values. To get a grip on that, we need to be attentive to the ways in which all ideas are embedded in particularities of culture and history, specificities that we ignore or pretend don’t exist at our peril.

Taylor’s work is also embedded in his narrative, his intellectual history, which makes the central ideas of The Language Animal broadly predictable. He argues that language, like everything else that matters to human beings, cannot be understood as a kind of semantic Lego, where we acquire individual words with firm, clear shapes and string them together to form sentences, paragraphs, essays and books. Language is shaped by the culture that has produced it, which means that it, in turn, shapes those who go on to use it. Hence: “The basic thesis of this book is that language can only be understood if we understand its constitutive role in human life.”

More here.

Evolution makes scientific sense. So why do many people reject it?

Nathalia Gjersoe in The Guardian:

ScreenHunter_1828 Apr. 01 16.42Evolution is poorly understood by students and, disturbingly, by many of their science teachers. Although it is part of the compulsory science curriculum in most schools in the UK and the USA, more than a third of people in both countriesreject the theory of evolution outright or believe that it is guided by a supreme being.

It is critical that the voting public have a clear understanding of evolution. Adaptation by natural selection, the primary mechanism of evolution, underpins a raft of current social concerns such as antibiotic resistance, the impact of climate change and the relationship between genes and environment. So why, despite formal scientific education, does intelligent design remain so intuitively plausible and evolution so intuitively opaque? And what can we do about it?

Developmental psychologists have identified two cognitive biases in very young children that help to explain the popularity of intelligent design. The first is a belief that species are defined by an internal quality that cannot be changed (psychological essentialism). The second is that all things are designed for a purpose (promiscuous teleology). These biases interact with cultural beliefs such as religion but are just as prevalent in children raised in secular societies. Importantly, these beliefs become increasingly entrenched, making formal scientific instruction more and more difficult as children get older.

More here.

Can Pakistan win its war against the Taliban?

Mohammed Hanif in The Guardian:

ScreenHunter_1827 Apr. 01 16.39Paranoid parents have always known that children’s parks are potentially dangerous places. That rickety seesaw might fling your child skywards. That slide is always too steep. That swing will snap one day. That toy plane that vibrates after you insert a metal token and sings Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star is wrongly wired and will turn into a death trap.

We think of all these things, but we never think of a suicide bomber blowing himself up in children’s play area on a Sunday afternoon. Not even on an Easter Sunday afternoon. Not even in Pakistan.

We have seen schoolchildren being massacred before, we have seen churches bombed and Christian localities burnt to ashes. We thought we had seen the worst. We were told that we are winning this war. Nothing could have prepared us for the carnage that took place in Gulshan-e-Iqbal park, Lahore, last Sunday.

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Friday Poem

Origin of the World

I hereby close the gates between my legs till further notice
For an unlimited period, due to maintenance.
No bearers of first fruit will come
No pilgrims will make pilgrimage
No prayers made under the empty skies,
Not a single butchered sheep is to be offered as a sacrifice
Upon my tortured holy altar.
The origin of the world was found to be rotten.
All men are corrupt.
All sexual activity – an abomination.
I raise a dam, lay an embargo, impose a curfew, economic ban –
No goods or wares can be transported,
Or imported, or exported,
All vessels are requested to remain in port and blow
Their steam on neutral.
I build a wooden ark to save only myself
And flee this wretched ruin,
Tout seul.
I bring down a heavy rain, a flood, a cloudburst without break,
And may all men flutter, be washed out like seashells in a rake.
All men are similar to starfish, putrid, withered, pale – the works,
All men are green glass bottles sealed with perforated corks
Carrying worn, forlorn and fraudulent love letters, safe and sound.
All men are carried by the waves,
Forever lost and drowned.
And I promise –
That no rebellious raven will flutter within my drunken depths,
Nor be set free prematurely from my abyss
To see if the waters have abated.
As for the dove, you rest assured I keep it close to my heart.
The flood already happened!
Tear all existing things apart!
‘The origin of the world’ will remain frozen and static, a dead metaphor,
Still life under my short mini skirt
Like in the painting by Courbet.
For I, dear sirs, am luckily
A female poet.
And now I will create a whole new world
All different than you know it.

by Naomi Partom
from: Leh-havir et hamayim bah-esh/Setting the Water on Fire
publisher: Xargol/Am Oved, Tel Aviv, 2012,
translation: Yotam Benshalom

“Peter Fischli David Weiss: How to Work Better”

ArticleClaire Bishop at Artforum:

Part of what makes “Suddenly This Overview” so wonderful is the image it conjures of two artists beavering away in the studio, each interpreting a list of topics in a way that would tickle the other’s fancy. The pair’s very first collaboration, “Sausage Series,” 1979, also gives this impression—it is a group of photographs in which various forms of Germanic processed meat, along with other foodstuffs and household objects, are arranged to create ambitious diorama-like landscapes in the confines of an unremarkable apartment. This sense of relentless indoor tinkering is fully fledged in the elaborate garage setup of the artists’ much-loved, much-copied video The Way Things Go, 1987: a mesmeric chain reaction of objects set into motion via spillages and explosions, its cobbled-together devices constantly on the brink of failure. The video took two years to make and is gloriously self-sufficient; it’s also one of the earliest and only works of video art to be commercially accessible to the public (currently $14.99 on iTunes). These works position Fischli and Weiss in a lineage of artists who thrive in the studio, but instead of making work about not knowing what to make, as Bruce Nauman did so poignantly in 1969, the duo seem unburdened by time or the pressure to produce meaning. The Way Things Go is a labor of love whose obsessiveness is immediately recognized by viewers, who are often unable to tear themselves away (hence the unusual decision to install the work twice).

At the end of the exhibition, in the Tower Gallery, is the black-and-white (and possibly too-cute) installationQuestions, 2000–2003, which flashes hundreds of polyglot queries across the wall. I would have rather seen this space used to present Visible World, 1986–2012, in its best-known format of three thousand photographs on a seventy-two-foot-long table, rather than half-buried on three modest plasma screens halfway up the ramp. While the work was first seen as a slide show on late-night television in Germany (during Documenta 10), the present installation is a little too close to a screen saver, losing the sense of information overload that arises from topographic sprawl.

more here.

Zaha Hadid’s unfettered invention

091221_r19146_p646John Seabrook at The New Yorker:

For an architect so celebrated, Hadid has a relatively small output. She has completed thirteen structures: these include the Vitra Fire Station, in Weil am Rhein, Germany (1994); a train station in Strasbourg (2001); a ski jump in Innsbruck, with an attached restaurant (2002); the Lois and Richard Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art, in Cincinnati (2003); the Phaeno Science Center, in Wolfsburg, Germany (2005); the BMW Plant Central Building, in Leipzig (2005); and MAXXI, in Rome (2009). She shows an unusual degree of comfort with changes of scale; she enjoys working on small projects, like furniture and shoes, at the same time that she is designing large structures, like museums and railway stations. Her Aqua Table, a resin-and-silicone dining table she designed in 2005 for Established & Sons, which has sold for as much as two hundred thousand dollars, looks like the roof of her Aquatics Center, in East London, currently under construction, which will be the architectural showpiece of the 2012 Summer Olympics.

There is no single Hadid style, although one can detect a watermark in her buildings’ futuristic smoothness. Certain themes carry through her use of materials (glass, steel, concrete), her lines (corridors often trace flowing arabesque shapes, while roof struts make sharp Z-shaped angles), her structures (she favors column-free spaces), and her sculptural interiors and asymmetric façades. In all her work, Hadid is concerned with movement and speed—both the way people will move through the buildings and the way a sight line travels through light and shadow.

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James Tate’s Last Poem

TatetypewriterDan Piepenbring at The Paris Review:

Late last year, I saw John Ashbery give a reading at Pioneer House, in Brooklyn. At one point, he read a prose poem by James Tate, who died last summer. It was, Ashbery said, Tate’s final poem—so incontrovertibly final, in fact, that it had been discovered in the poet’s typewriter soon after his death. What Ashbery went on to read was terrific: as I recalled, it opened in a comic mode, riffing on all these bogus feats Tate claimed to have accomplished that year (hot-dog-eating contest winner, arm-wrestling contest winner, et cetera) and building to a quiet, rueful meditation on aging.

It seemed almost too perfect to have been plucked unedited from a typewriter, so much so that I wondered, in passing, if maybe it were a sly, prankish tribute. I knew, or I thought I remembered, that Ashbery and Tate had been close. “He has developed a homegrown variety of surrealism almost in his own backyard,” Ashbery had written of his friend in 1995—a variety in which we find “something very like the air we breathe, the unconscious mind erupting in one-on-one engagements with the life we all live, every day.” The poem Ashbery had read was so rich with those “eruptions” that I knew it had to be Tate’s.

more here.

When it’s good to be bad: taking the long way around

Cody Delistraty in Aeon:

Header_ESSAY-NYC132575Epicurus understood that the expectation of future pleasure is a pleasure in itself. Taking up his ideas, the Enlightenment philosopher Jeremy Bentham noted: ‘Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure.’ Yet pleasure, for Epicurus and Bentham, was defined not by sensation or excitement but by both the absence of pain and the expectation of its absence. For Freud, the ‘pleasure principle’ described the active pursuit of pleasure; but in both cases, pain and pleasure are binary feelings: while a person might still have to physically endure pain, by looking forward to a lack of pain in the future – that is, pleasure – she can be sufficiently distracted from her current bodily discomfort. The history of exaggerated pleasure is generally a response to a perceived deprivation. That is, pleasure is relative. For the late 19th-century French Decadents, for instance, whose works might seem salacious, pornographic, unnecessary (reminiscent of the Marquis de Sade), their exaggerated pleasure came to embody a bolder meaning when juxtaposed with the bourgeois values that brought levels of financial inequality and deprivation that had been unheard of since the Revolution.

To take a more prosaic example, consuming 2,300 calories might not be pleasurable to someone who consumes that on a daily basis; however it quickly becomes pleasurable when one is accustomed to eating just 1,300 calories per day. A fancy restaurant means very little if every night is spent at august tables, and a good deal more when one has been consuming dinners comprised chiefly of ramen. Therefore to plan hedonistic setbacks on your way to achieving a goal is to convert an otherwise painful process into a more pleasurable one. ‘The simple act of knowing they would have a moment of pleasure in the future made participants more persistent towards their goals’, said do Vale. Pleasure, however, is a particularly slippery concept. Surely the pursuit of pleasure – and avoidance of pain – does not exclusively inform our every move? Is that what all of our goals come down to – maximising pleasure, minimising pain? In De Anima, Aristotle claimed animals desire things and with this desire they are given movement – a lion desires food so he runs for a gazelle. But for human beings, Aristotle says, reason also plays into our pursuit of a goal. Humans use reason to shape how they imagine a useful object of desire. With reason and desire working in tandem we choose and pursue our goals. In Phaedrus, Plato said the soul is guided by a dark horse of passion and a white horse of reason. Socrates agreed, but said the white horse is of greater importance – we must use reason to pursue the right things; to let desire reign over reason is to chase the eventually meaningless and temporal.

More here.