Zero-k-delilloMichael J. Sanders at The Quarterly Conversation:

A blue mannequin staring you full in the face from out behind the title and author printed in the same cyan font. Don DeLillo. Zero K. This image itself seems to say that Don DeLillo’s new novel, his sixteenth, will most likely be his last. It will deal with isolation, with absolutes and nullities, and with what Catholics would call “Last Things”: heaven, hell, death, judgment. Also known as Absolute Zero, Zero K or 0° Kelvin (-273.15 °C) represents the asymptotic point where atoms reach perfect stasis. Where nothing moves. Where time stops.

However, within the novel’s own Zero K, a sparse room inside a mysterious scientific facility in rural Eastern Europe funded and run by a group known as the “Convergence,” such is not the case. Rather, here is where certain wealthy elites choose to forego their twilight years so as to be preserved in cryogenic vats. The novel’s protagonist, Jeffrey Lockhart, with his father Ross, watches as his stepmother Artis is taken to Zero K. A deep skeptic of this latest bid for scientific transcendence, Jeffrey relishes the fact that Zero K in fact brings the body that the Convergence takes and—transforms? preserves? kills?—farther from rather than closer to the coldest of temperatures.

Like many of the main players in DeLillo’s late fiction, Ross Lockhart is a billionaire whose exact occupation and power are left to the hazy cant of the industry: “private wealth management,” “dynasty trusts,” “emerging markets.” Suffice to say he is part of the same world of predatory finance capital as Eric Packer of Cosmopolis (2003) and buys from the same mega-rich abstract art market of Martin Ridnour of Falling Man (2007). After a career of being privy to pretty much anything he wants, Ross decides to fund something of actual worth, a project dedicated to ending human death.

more here.

Deep Thinking About Immigration

James Ryerson in The New York Times:

IvoryFrom Hobbes and Hegel to John Stuart Mill and John Rawls, the seminal figures of Western political theory are united in their almost complete neglect of the topic of immigration. No doubt they have their reasons. Who among them witnessed anything like the global refugee crisis of 2015? Or the anxieties about national identity that it inflamed? Be that as it may, with hostility toward immigrants and refugees fueling the “Brexit” movement and the presidential campaign of Donald J. Trump, we could use some deep thinking right now about the relationship between the state and its citizens. This deep thinking would no longer start with the assumption that we already know who is included in that relationship (thanks for nothing, John Locke!), but rather would inquire how, in light of often conflicting values like local democracy and global justice, we should go about figuring that out.

On the case is the political philosopher David Miller. His timely book STRANGERS IN OUR MIDST: The Political Philosophy of Immigration may not be the first treatise of its kind, but it aims to be the first to combine such an abstract approach to the topic with such a strong dose of realism. Make no mistake: Miller is a humane, social democratic Oxford University professor — a softy. But he does not wish away such stubborn, unfortunate facts as social prejudice and failed states, and he wrestles with the issue of immigration from that hard-­bitten perspective. He comes down in favor of a state’s right — except when human rights are threatened — to close its borders to outsiders, and proposes four principles that should govern states’ selection policies when they do choose to admit immigrants. Miller’s first principle is what he calls “weak cosmopolitanism.” A weak cosmopolitan believes in the equal worth of all human beings but sees this as morally compatible with giving special consideration to our compatriots. The argument is simple: The radical changes to our behavior required by a strong cosmopolitanism — which holds that we have an obligation to treat all people the same — would entail abandoning too much of what gives shape and meaning to our lives in the first place (our families, communities and so on).

More here.

Le Carre is our greatest living author because he gets humans

Natasha Cooper in The Telegraph:

Cumming,-Le-Carre-large_trans++iwqBqhyUMy2ijIogC-Oc2OSEE34CvIFYgaVsQTrDMTkHave we ever loved John le Carré as much as we do now? After the huge success of The Night Manager, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold will now be adapted as a television series. This a fortnight after it was confirmed that Gary Oldman will reprise his role as George Smiley in the film sequel to Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. A quarter of a century after the end of the Cold War, it seems, we cannot get enough of its most famous chronicler.Finally, we in Britain may have realised what that great American writer Philip Roth understood in 1986, when he described A Perfect Spy as “the best English novel since the war”. Is John le Carré, author of enormously popular novels since 1961, when he published Call for the Dead, our greatest living writer?

His standing has been high for years. But he has never been taken as seriously as many “literary writers” with a fraction of his talent. This is partly because his genre is thrillers, but perhaps also because there is a crusading anger about some of his later work that can make it read more as polemic than fiction.There’s no doubt, though, that in his best work he can do everything from high drama to the quietest of domestic misery. He can evoke place in only a few words, and he can be funny. For a writer whose principal subject is betrayal – personal, political, and commercial – this ability to make readers laugh is unexpected. In The Honourable Schoolboy, the third novel in his great Cold War trilogy, The Quest for Karla, le Carré has the undisciplined journalist and spy Jerry Westerby blagging his way into a south-east Asian war zone in a scene of the highest comedy.

More here.

Saturday Poem

Lot’s Wife

They say I looked back out of curiosity.
But I could have had other reasons.
I looked back mourning my silver bowl.
Carelessly, while tying my sandal strap.
So I wouldn't have to keep staring at the righteous nape
of my husband Lot's neck.
From the sudden conviction that if I dropped dead
he wouldn't so much as hesitate.
From the disobedience of the meek.
Checking for pursuers.
Struck by the silence, hoping God had changed his mind.
Our two daughters were already vanishing over the hilltop.
I felt age within me. Distance.
The futility of wandering. Torpor.
I looked back setting my bundle down.
I looked back not knowing where to set my foot.
Serpents appeared on my path,
spiders, field mice, baby vultures.
They were neither good nor evil now–every living thing
was simply creeping or hopping along in the mass panic.
I looked back in desolation.
In shame because we had stolen away.
Wanting to cry out, to go home.
Or only when a sudden gust of wind
unbound my hair and lifted up my robe.
It seemed to me that they were watching from the walls of Sodom
and bursting into thunderous laughter again and again.
I looked back in anger.
To savor their terrible fate.
I looked back for all the reasons given above.
I looked back involuntarily.
It was only a rock that turned underfoot, growling at me.
It was a sudden crack that stopped me in my tracks.
A hamster on its hind paws tottered on the edge.
It was then we both glanced back.
No, no. I ran on,
I crept, I flew upward
until darkness fell from the heavens
and with it scorching gravel and dead birds.
I couldn't breathe and spun around and around.
Anyone who saw me must have thought I was dancing.
It's not inconceivable that my eyes were open.
It's possible I fell facing the city.

by Wislawa Szymborska
from View With a Grain of Sand
Harcourt Brace

Martha Nussbaum: Anger is the emotion that has come to saturate our politics and culture. Philosophy can help us out of this dark vortex

Martha Nussbaum in Aeon:

ScreenHunter_2131 Jul. 30 09.59There’s no emotion we ought to think harder and more clearly about than anger. Anger greets most of us every day – in our personal relationships, in the workplace, on the highway, on airline trips – and, often, in our political lives as well. Anger is both poisonous and popular. Even when people acknowledge its destructive tendencies, they still so often cling to it, seeing it as a strong emotion, connected to self-respect and manliness (or, for women, to the vindication of equality). If you react to insults and wrongs without anger you’ll be seen as spineless and downtrodden. When people wrong you, says conventional wisdom, you should use justified rage to put them in their place, exact a penalty. We could call this football politics, but we’d have to acknowledge right away that athletes, whatever their rhetoric, have to be disciplined people who know how to transcend anger in pursuit of a team goal.

If we think closely about anger, we can begin to see why it is a stupid way to run one’s life. A good place to begin is Aristotle’s definition: not perfect, but useful, and a starting point for a long Western tradition of reflection. Aristotle says that anger is a response to a significant damage to something or someone one cares about, and a damage that the angry person believes to have been wrongfully inflicted. He adds that although anger is painful, it also contains within itself a hope for payback. So: significant damage, pertaining to one’s own values or circle of cares, and wrongfulness. All this seems both true and uncontroversial. More controversial, perhaps, is his idea (in which, however, all Western philosophers who write about anger concur) that the angry person wants some type of payback, and that this is a conceptual part of what anger is. In other words, if you don’t want some type of payback, your emotion is something else (grief, perhaps), but not really anger.

Is this really right? I think so.

More here.

Poetry and Politics in Myanmar

Rachel Wong in The Point:

ScreenHunter_2130 Jul. 30 09.49After a landslide victory in Myanmar’s national elections last year, Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy came to power this February. Among those who took their seats in parliament were eleven poets, many of whom were active during the democracy protests of 1988 and are former political prisoners. Myanmar’s new president is the son of the renowned poet Min Thu Wun. And in a highly publicized trial this year, Maung Saungkha was arrested for defaming the former president in his verses. Circles of poets in traditionalist Mandalay, socialist-realist Pyinmana, cosmopolitan Yangon and elsewhere are debating what it means to write poetry in a time of transition from dictatorship to democracy. Under a state that has abolished censorship, what is the function of a dissident? When the opposition of many years, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, has finally become the ruling power, who forms the new civil society?

Recorded in April at a dinner gathering in the apartment of Point editor Rachel Wong, what follows is a conversation with four writers, publishers and translators from Yangon. Also present were American journalist Maddy Crowell and Point founding editor Jon Baskin.

More here.

Researchers apply quantum theory and Einstein’s special relativity to plasma physics issues

From Phys.org:

PpplappliesqAmong the intriguing issues in plasma physics are those surrounding X-ray pulsars—collapsed stars that orbit around a cosmic companion and beam light at regular intervals, like lighthouses in the sky. Physicists want to know the strength of the magnetic field and density of the plasma that surrounds these pulsars, which can be millions of times greater than the density of plasma in stars like the sun.

Researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL) have developed a theory of waves that can infer these properties in greater detail than in standard approaches. The new research analyzes the plasma surrounding the pulsar by coupling Einstein's theory of relativity with , which describes the motion of subatomic particles such as the atomic nuclei—or ions—and electrons in plasma. Supporting this work is the DOE Office of Science.

The key insight comes from , which describes charged particles that are relativistic, meaning that they travel at near the speed of light. “Quantum theory can describe certain details of the propagation of waves in plasma,” said Yuan Shi, a graduate student in the Princeton Program in Plasma Physics and lead author of a paper published July 29 in the journal Physical Review A. Understanding the interactions behind the propagation can then reveal the composition of the plasma.

More here.

Summer with a Thousand Julys

FireLuc Sante at The Paris Review:

I have it on the highest authority that summer will never end. It might get cooler, intermittently, but it will never stop being summer. Which is of course wonderful, because summer is a bubble during which life’s ordinary rules are suspended. Summer is when we don’t have to get up in the morning, or even the afternoon. Summer is when we insist on ice-cold beer to chill our body cavity, especially the spleen. Summer is when we go see particularly stupid movies because it would be unseasonal to have to think. Summer is when we get into fights with the neighbors over noise or property lines or because we should live next door as well as at our house. Summer is when nobody ever has to make eye contact. Summer is when nothing ever happened before this moment right now. Summer is when we trash the joint because whatever. Summer is when we fire guns into the air and the bullet never comes down.

All the very best countries celebrate their national holidays in the summer. Summer is the season best adapted to modern commerce. When you think Hollywood, you think summer. Arson perpetuates summer; it makes it an action and not just a moment. In summer, we think of rain as a calamity, and so does the weatherman, who pulls a long face at the announcement of a sunless day. Summer craves fresh bodies.

more here.

a new biography of charlotte brontë

80dc0e3e-53e8-11e6-8dea-000ee0549984Trev Broughton at the Times Literary Supplement:

What Charlotte Brontë: A Life does with conviction is remember what many biographies forget: that this is a terrific story. Brimming with indomitable personalities, trials and ordeals, passions and disappointments, it has all the elements of a traditional romance. At the same time, its protagonist, a restless, dissatisfied heroine struggling to make and remake the world in her quest for growth and recognition, is the quintessential modern subject: the subject of the modern novel.

Harman places the propulsive force of story-telling at the heart of her narrative, and Charlotte Brontë steps forth newly minted, as if we’ve never met her before. Harman’s portraits are always three-dimensional and humane, even when they treat of energetic, creative, sometimes monstrously difficult people. Her account of Charlotte’s father, the Revd Patrick Brontë is characteristic. As a young man, Patrick wrote a poem for his fiancée Mary Burder praising her eyes of sparkling blue. When the Burder option fizzled out (Patrick seems to have got cold feet because she was a Dissenter), the poem found its way into his slim volume of Cottage Poems. He then presented the volume, with the poem, to another young woman, pointedly inking in a correction to “sparkling hazle eye”. As Harman observes, this efficient repurposing might at a push have seemed engagingly “familiar and jocular” if the message of the poem had been less dour. “But hark, fair maid! whate’er they say / You’re but a breathing mass of clay / Fast ripening for the grave” were lines “unlikely to delight a twenty-year-old girl” even if he had got the colour of her eyes right. “[A] reckless and rather chilly lover” is Harman’s crisp verdict.

more here.

You’re wrong about Leave voters

Gettyimages-540653994Julia Rampen at The New Statesman:

He is an old man from a coastal town. He’s uneducated by modern standards, and worked for an industry that is now defunct. He spends his retirement shooting suspicious looks at anyone who looks “forrun” and wincing at the sound of Polish voices. He voted to quit the EU. He’s Mr Leave.

In the aftermath of Brexit, this caricature has haunted the imagination of many a Remain voter. But a new report from the think tank British Future shows it is a false one. Just as a quarter of Remain voters also backed the Tories in 2015 (sorry, progressive alliancers), Leave voters have different views on immigration, sovereignty and the economy.

Here are some of the most surprising insights from the polling, which was carried out with pollsters ICM:

While a quarter of Leave voters cited immigration as their number one reason, more than half said they were motivated by “taking power back from Brussels”.

In contrast to the caricature of the ancient xenophobe, the older a Leave voter, the more likely sovereignty was their motivation.

more here.

Friday Poem

Equal opportunities

A son and a daughter.
The mother prefers the son to the daughter.
The son will stand by his mother through the vicissitudes of life.
The daughter will produce another son to stand by her side.

An aphorism

To be in love is not to be a bird in the hand of the one you love,
better for them than ten in the bush.
A bird in the bush is better than ten in the hand,
from the birds’ point of view.


Sometimes love is like a meal to someone who’s been fasting
at other times it’s like a new pair of sports shoes given
to a disabled child.
Love, in general, is a deal that brings much loss
to all parties.


The old door applauds the wind by clapping
for the dance it has performed, accompanied by the trees.
The old door doesn’t have hands
and the trees haven’t been to dancing school.
And the wind is an invisible creature,
even when it’s dancing with the trees.

by Ashraf Fayadh’s
from I
nstructions Within
translated by Jonathan Wright:


Palestinian poet Ashraf Fayadh, is serving eight years and 800 lashes in Saudi Arabia
for the alleged apostasy in his collection
Instructions Within
—“I am fearful of being forgotten,” he has said.

‘An artful response to Trump’

Jill Abramson in The Guardian:

ClinIn her convention speech, Hillary repeated a story she’s often told about her mother. Dorothy Rodham insisted that her daughter stand up to bullies, saying “Cowards don’t live in this house.” Her mantra was hit back when someone hits you. Her daughter clearly took the lesson to heart and enjoyed every punch she delivered on Thursday night in Philadelphia. It was payback time for all of those “Crooked Hillary” jabs from Trump and the Republican convention refrain, “Lock her up.” It was an effective performance, spoken not in anger, but in a tone of humorous sarcasm. Clinton often and proudly talks about how she gets under Trump’s skin and judging from his tweets after the speech, she surely did. Besides getting a kick out of kicking Trump, she’s quite good at ridiculing him. Her script was scrupulously factual, making her case against her opponent all the more devastating. Running against Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primaries and Barack Obama, she never seemed comfortable going negative. Politically, it was risky for a female candidate, especially her, to seem mean as she’s already viewed as unlikeable by a significant portion of voters.

But Trump has been so vulgar and mean himself, the political risk seems minimal. His temperament and crazed policy proposals, which have only become more preposterous lately, make him an easy target. Hillary’s best speeches in the campaign have been the ones in which she tears apart Trump’s proposals. Her speech in San Diego before the California primary was a triumph with its tight focus on Trump’s dangerous international and national security proposals, including banning Muslims from the country and reviving torture. Her convention speech was an artful retort to Trump, contrasting President Reagan’s “Morning in America” with Trump’s “Midnight in America.” She portrayed Trump’s boasts of being able to fix the country’s problems himself as un-American. The American way, she stressed repeatedly, is working together to fix the ills of society. Her performance in Philadelphia also showed that she’s become more media-savvy. A witty put-down is sure to receive more coverage than a dry policy lecture. Maybe Clinton has finally learned that she can’t let Trump own every news cycle. One of her funniest lines was: “There is no other Donald Trump. This is it.” The delegates roared.

More here.

Gene editing: Running with scissors

John Harris in Nature:

PigIn Redesigning Life, molecular pharmacologist John Parrington has produced a veritable compendium of games that scientists like him can play with life itself. He invites us to imagine the potential of life forms “whose very genetic recipe was manufactured in a chemistry lab using new components never seen before on Earth”. What larks! What follows is a thorough and comprehensive account of the methodologies for altering life that have been or are being developed, and the directions that they may take in future. Those methodologies include the insertion or deletion of genes, the engineering of synthetic genes and the design of creatures unprecedented in nature. As Parrington shows, many of the technologies are familiar: for example, designing immunity to disease through vaccination, or animal and plant breeding. He ends with the concept of a “redesigned planet”, replete with new types of people, as well as designer babies, pets, plants and drugs. Invoking the catchphrase of comic-book superhero Spiderman, “with great power comes great responsibility”, he touches on the challenges that such a possibility would entail.

…Why might it be better to aim to increase cognitive powers and perhaps even intelligence by education, diet or exercise than through gene editing or drugs? One would also need to identify elements that would clearly be unethical to design into a person, such as an increased propensity to disease or premature death. Most importantly, one would need to consider why attempts at design are morally worse (if they are) than simply leaving things to the genetic lottery of sexual reproduction. There is a story that in the early twentieth century, the pioneering modern dancer Isadora Duncan suggested to writer George Bernard Shaw that they should have a child, surmising that with her looks and his brains any progeny would have huge advantages. The ever-rational Shaw responded, “But what if it had your brains and my looks?” Was Duncan's proposal unethical or just misconceived? What would or should have made such a proposal ethically problematic? And if it was not ethically problematic, why might more 'techie' attempts become unethical?

More here.

Interview with Owen Flanagan, James B Duke University Professor of Philosophy at Duke University

Helen De Cruz in The Prosblogion:

Can you tell me something about your academic position, and about your current religious affiliation/self-identification – please feel free to say something about your religious upbringing or history, or anything else that might be relevant to your current religious affiliation.

Flannagan[1444182923000]I am James B. Duke University Professor of Philosophy at Duke University in Durham NC, where I am Co-director of the Center for Comparative Philosophy. I was raised as a Roman Catholic and still have that Catholic boy inside me. I received a fantastic education from nuns, most of whom had never been to anything that we would call college. I get Catholicism. It is in my blood and bones. It is familiar. In Rome last year, my wife and I visited Saint Peter’s, many other churches, went to vespers at a convent, and I was consistently moved, engaged. But I haven’t practiced since I was a young teenager. I was bothered by hell, specifically the idea that a good God would have such a place, by the emphasis on sexual sins, and by a sincere worry that although Jesus might be understood as a prophet, as he is in the Koran, but was simply nowhere good enough to be God.

So, I am a certain kind of atheist, a philosophical one, who has never heard a substantive conception of God, the sort that is presented in creedal religions (I believe in god the Father almighty…) that I thought the weight of reasons supported belief in. The reasons always seem to weigh against actually believing in THAT God. This philosophical orientation goes well with a certain resistance to epistemic over-confidence that is needed to speak confidently about the existence or nature of one’s God or gods.

In part, I have been too impressed, in a good way I think, by my interest and study of other great world religions to be confident about the creedal parts of the Catholicism I was raised in, which I was told was the one true religion.

More here.

Physicists can’t agree on whether the flow of future to past is real or a mental construct

Dan Falk in The Atlantic:

ScreenHunter_2127 Jul. 28 18.55Einstein once described his friend Michele Besso as “the best sounding board in Europe” for scientific ideas. They attended university together in Zurich; later they were colleagues at the patent office in Bern. When Besso died in the spring of 1955, Einstein—knowing that his own time was also running out—wrote a now-famous letter to Besso’s family. “Now he has departed this strange world a little ahead of me,” Einstein wrote of his friend’s passing. “That signifies nothing. For us believing physicists, the distinction between past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.”

Einstein’s statement was not merely an attempt at consolation. Many physicists argue that Einstein’s position is implied by the two pillars of modern physics: Einstein’s masterpiece, the general theory of relativity, and the Standard Model of particle physics. The laws that underlie these theories are time-symmetric—that is, the physics they describe is the same, regardless of whether the variable called “time” increases or decreases. Moreover, they say nothing at all about the point we call “now”—a special moment (or so it appears) for us, but seemingly undefined when we talk about the universe at large. The resulting timeless cosmos is sometimes called a “block universe”—a static block of space-time in which any flow of time, or passage through it, must presumably be a mental construct or other illusion.

More here. [Thanks to Sean Carroll.]