Jerry Alper in Existential Cosmology:
On May 8, in Manhattan, I had met with Sean Carroll for a prearranged interview on his forthcoming The Big Picture. The three hour conversation that ensued had been an exhilarating, if somewhat overwhelming experience. Before I could write about it, however, I needed to process it. Sean Carroll, for his part, wanted to do “some writing” in preparation for his scheduled May 10th talk at the Bell House in Brooklyn. This was the event that would kick off the grand book tour of his much-anticipated, new book, the wildly-ambitious, magisterial synthesis called simply The Big Picture. The pub. Date (May 10th) was two days away but already the reviews from some of the brightest names in science were starting to arrive. Here, for example, is what the brilliant quantum experimental physicist, Sabine Hossenfelder, says about the Big Picture.
“The Big Picture is, above everything else, a courageous book — and an overdue one. So, I am super happy about the book. The Big Picture should make clear that physicists aren’t just arrogant when they say their work reveals insights that reach far beyond the boundaries of their disciplines. Physics indeed has an exceptional status among the sciences.”
Be that as it may, I was of two minds about actually travelling to the Bell House which I had never heard of and to which I had never been (but to which I’ve now been invited to). On the one hand — the event being scheduled between 8 p.m. — 11 p.m. — I would be lucky if I could arrive home before midnight. On the other hand, this was a rare opportunity, perhaps a once in a lifetime opportunity, to see Sean Carroll lecture in person and I did not want to miss out on it.
Franklin Foer in Slate:
A foreign government has hacked a political party’s computers—and possibly an election. It has stolen documents and timed their release to explode with maximum damage. It is a strike against our civic infrastructure. And though nobody died—and there was no economic toll exacted—the Russians were aiming for a tender spot, a central node of our democracy.
It was hard to see the perniciousness of this attack at first, especially given how news media initially covered the story. The Russians, after all, didn’t knock out a power grid. And when the stolen information arrived, it was dressed in the ideology of WikiLeaks, which presents its exploits as possessing a kind of journalistic bravery the traditional media lacks.
But this document dump wasn’t a high-minded act of transparency. To state the obvious, only one political party has been exposed. (Selectively exposed: Many emails were culled from the abridged dump.) And it’s not really even the inner workings of the Democrats that have been revealed; the documents don’t suggest new layers of corruption or detail any new conspiracies. They’re something closer to the embarrassing emails that fly across every office in America—griping, the testing of stupid ideas, the banal musings that take place in private correspondence.
Eileen Townsend at The Paris Review:
If you’ve ever taken I-81 north through Virginia, you’ve passed the town of Natural Bridge, in Rockbridge County—home to a ninety-foot limestone arch that extends over a gorge, a geological anomaly probably formed by an ancient underground river. Natural Bridge is an anachronism from the Route 66 era of highway travel, a place where you can pay twenty dollars to look at a rock, eat a rock-themed lunch, and then buy a shot glass illustrated with a picture of that same rock. As any respectable tourist trap must, the town hosts a constellation of other attractions: a petting zoo, a dinosaur/Civil War theme park, and the Natural Bridge Wax Museum (now closed, and former home to a ghoulish Obama tribute). Best of all is the featherlight, faux prehistoric monument known as Foamhenge.
As its name suggests, Foamhenge is a one-to-one scale replica of Stonehenge, made of foam. It is identical to the original, save the flecked gray paint, the accompanying statue of a deadhead-ish Merlin, and the fact that it was erected several millennia later. For the past twelve years, the henge has been the most public of Natural Bridge’s draws, garnering a steady stream of visitors and enough press to be mentioned in the same breath as the area’s actual ancient rocks. Its creator, an artist named Mark Cline, calls it his “foam-nomenon”: the unlikely culmination of his career as a sculptor of roadside attractions.
Robert Fay at The Millions:
When Samuel Beckett was a young man, his parents wanted to him to work in the family’s accountancy business and assume his place in Dublin’s Protestant merchant class. As Tim Parkswrites in his new book, Life and Work: Writers, Readers, and the Conversations between Them, “a battle of wills ensued between mother and son…As the impasse intensified, [Beckett] developed a number of physical symptoms — boils, anal cysts, pelvic pains, tachycardia, panic attacks…” The panic attacks would plague Beckett for years, and his biographer Anthony Cronin tells us, inSamuel Beckett: The Last Modernist, that he didn’t reflect on his maladies in a conventional manner. In 1935 he attended a lecture by Swiss psychiatrist and former Freud protégé C.J. Jung. Beckett was 29 years old, in analysis, and believed he suffered from a neurotic disorder that “had its origins in infancy, in a time he could not remember,” Cronin writes.
In the lecture, Jung described the case of a young girl whose difficulties baffled him until he fell upon a simple, though rather esoteric diagnosis: “The girl had never really been born.” The idea immediately fired Beckett’s imagination. Cronin claims it triggered something crucial in Beckett and would become central to his self-understanding, and a recurring motif in his works. Beckett, he writes, “thought the diagnosis was a profoundly suggestive illumination of his own case, his sense of alienation from the world and of not being ready or fitted to cope with it, to join in its activities as others did, or even to understand the reasons for them.”
Alice Gregory at The New Yorker:
Last September, in Guadalajara, an American conceptual artist named Jill Magid and a pair of gravediggers convened at the Rotonda de los Jaliscienses Ilustres, a monument where the most celebrated citizens of the state of Jalisco are entombed. With them were two notaries and a handful of bureaucrats. It was just after eight in the morning, and the area was nearly silent. The quiet was disturbed by the sound of chisels striking stone. The gravediggers removed a metal plaque, then a cement wall, and, finally, a brick façade. More than an hour later, they hit what they were looking for: an oxidized copper urn, filled with the ashes of Luis Barragán, one of Mexico’s greatest architects, who died in 1988. They removed the urn from the cavity, brushing off dust and ants. Then they opened the vessel and presented it to Magid, who scooped out half a kilo of what looked like dirt and transferred it to a plastic bag, which she then put into a box. The next day, with the box in her carry-on, she flew home to New York.
In April, a diamond—2.02 carats, rough-cut, with one polished facet—arrived in Manhattan. It was sent overnight from Switzerland, and Magid had been tracking its shipping status hourly online. The package was delivered to her husband’s office, and after work he took it to Brooklyn, where they live with their two young sons. Magid did not open the small black box containing the jewel for hours, and, when she finally did, she cried. “It was way more emotional than I expected,” she told me.
Everyone was in Love
One day, when they were little, Maud and Fergus
appeared in the doorway naked and mirthful,
with a dozen long garter snakes draped over
each of them like brand-new clothes.
Snake trails dangled down their backs,
and snake foreparts in various lengths
fell over their fronts. With heads raised and swaying,
alert as cobras, the snakes writhed their dry skins
upon each other, as snakes like doing
in lovemaking, with the added novelty
of caressing soft, smooth, most human skin.
Maud and Fergus were deliciously pleased with themselves.
The snakes seemed to be tickled, too.
We were enchanted. Everyone was in love.
Then Maud drew down off Fergus’s shoulder,
as off a tie rack, a peculiarly
lumpy snake and told me to look inside.
Inside the double-hinged jaw, a frog’s green
webbed hind feet were being drawn,
like a diver’s, very slowly as if into deepest waters.
Perhaps thinking I might be considering rescue,
Maud said, “Don’t. Frog is already elsewhere.”
by Galway Kinnell
from Strong Is Your Hold
Houghton Mifflin Company, 2006
Sarah Larson in The New Yorker:
Michelle Obama, who provided us with our purest moment of levity last week, provided us with our purest moment of sanity last night. She also delivered the night’s most inspiring message. The Obamas have been a bittersweet presence in this campaign season—a poignant reminder, for the many of us who love and admire them, that while we duke it out to choose their successors, the family currently occupying the White House cannot be surpassed. Michelle Obama has been the ultimate FLOTUS—funny, wise, wholehearted, down to earth, even in the moments when we’ve suspected that she wouldn’t mind some privacy or freedom. During the misery and surreality of the Republican Convention, FLOTUS was a presence in two significant ways. The first was during the Melania plagiarism flap. For a few hours after Melania’s speech, before the story broke, some of us thought, Ah, not bad! One of the few vaguely sane speeches we will hear this week. To realize later what had inspired it was heartbreaking. When videos of Melania and Michelle’s similar lines were edited to play side by side, Obama showed warmth, heart, conviction. To see those words melted down into a speech promoting Donald Trump only enhanced the sense that we are living in a dystopian novel.
…Obama’s speech was both subtle and direct. She appealed to our maturity, talking about hardworking, idealistic Americans of all backgrounds. I wish the night could have ended after this speech, which invoked everything from police shootings to Orlando to segregation and sexism, foregrounded the greatness of our national ideals, and inspired us to continue fighting for change.
Jeff Tollefson in Nature:
Science is slowly coming into focus in the US presidential campaign. Although neither Republican Donald Trump nor Democrat Hillary Clinton has emphasized core research issues, the candidates — and their parties — are beginning to flesh out their positions on climate change, education, biomedical research and other topics that involve the scientific community. Trump’s pick of Indiana Governor Mike Pence as his running mate on 15 July signalled a sharp turn towards the Republican party’s conservative base. Pence, a self-described Christian conservative, has questioned the existence of climate change, waffled on evolution and criticized President Barack Obama for supporting embryonic-stem-cell research. His new role aligns with the hard-line policy platform adopted at the Republican convention, where Trump officially became the party’s nominee on 19 July.
…The two candidates — whose campaign staff declined multiple interview requests — also seem to think very differently about the role of science. Although Clinton has described science and innovation as a foundation for the future, science funding seems to be an afterthought for Trump, says John Karsten, coordinator of the Center for Technology Innovation at the Brookings Institution, a think tank in Washington DC. Instead, the Republican has focused on issues such as national security, immigration and crumbling infrastructure. Climate change is one of the few science topics that has grabbed the campaign spotlight — in part because of Republican anger over Obama’s regulations to limit greenhouse-gas emissions from power plants, vehicles and oil and gas development. Clinton’s climate and energy proposals would largely maintain the current course; by contrast, in a major policy speech on 26 May, Trump promised to roll back Obama’s “totalitarian” regulations and withdraw the United States from the Paris climate agreement. Trump, who has long denied mainstream climate science, also said that his administration will focus on “real environmental challenges, not phony ones”.
David Sloan Wilson in Evonomics:
Any serious student of economics can’t help but notice that the academic and popular versions are as different from each other as Dr. Frankenstein and his monster. Take Friedrich Hayek, for example. His books could fill a bookshelf and the commentary could fill a small library, but the monstrous version can only speak in two-word sentences. “Government bad! Market good!” Likewise the monstrous version of Adam Smith, the father of economics, can only say “Invisible hand!”
Just as Dr. Frankenstein couldn’t prevent his monster from running amok, it seems that economists can’t do anything to stop the monsters they created from sowing confusion wherever they go. Some economists act genuinely alarmed but I strongly suspect that others like it that way. They are mad economists and the monsters do their dirty work for them.
The creation of the Hayek Monster is well documented and nicely summarized in a 2010 New York Times article prompted by the sudden appearance of Hayek’s 1944 book The Road to Serfdom on the New York Times best seller list. That book was Hayek’s own attempt at popularization but it received two other boosts by a Reader’s Digest version in 1945, which sold more than a million copies, and a cartoon version that was published by the General Motors Corporation in Look Magazine during the same year and widely distributed by GM as a pamphlet. By then the transformation from man to monster was complete. According to the cartoon version, any step in the direction of government planning leads to a totalitarian state. The final panel of the cartoon shows John Q. Citizen being shot by a firing squad.
I’m not here to demonize Friedrich Hayek the man. I’m here to demonize Friedrich Hayek the Monster. The man was complex and so was his time.
Ed Yong in The New Yorker:
The Foods for Health Institute, at the University of California, Davis, has the appearance of a Tuscan villa, its terra-cotta-walled buildings overlooking a large vineyard and a garden that bursts with summer vegetables. It is led by a chemist named Bruce German, and if there were a world title in extolling the virtues of milk he would surely hold it. At our first meeting, he spent half an hour monologuing on the subject, bouncing on an exercise ball and kneading a tattered shred of bubble wrap as he spoke. Milk, he said, is a perfect source of nutrition, a superfood that is actually worthy of the label. This isn’t a common view. The number of scientific publications about milk is tiny, compared with the number devoted to other bodily fluids—blood, saliva, even urine. The dairy industry has spent a fortune on extracting more and more milk from cows, but very little on understanding just what this white liquid is or how it works. Medical-funding agencies have generally dismissed it as irrelevant, German said, because “it doesn’t have anything to do with the diseases of middle-aged white men.” And nutritionists have looked at it as a simple cocktail of fats and sugars, one that can be easily duplicated and replaced by formulas. “People said it’s just a bag of chemicals,” German told me. “It’s anything but that.”
Milk is a mammalian innovation, common to platypuses and pangolins, humans and hippos, its ingredients varying according to what each species needs. Human milk is a particular marvel. Every mammal mother produces complex sugars called oligosaccharides, but human mothers, for some reason, churn out an exceptional variety: so far, scientists have identified more than two hundred human milk oligosaccharides, or H.M.O.s. They are the third-most plentiful ingredient in human milk, after lactose and fats, and their structure ought to make them a rich source of energy for growing babies—but babies cannot digest them. When German first learned this, he was gobsmacked. Why would a mother expend so much energy manufacturing these complicated chemicals if they were apparently useless to her child?
Justin E. H. Smith in his own blog:
The evidence has been accumulating for a long time now –the connection to Yanukovych's former advisor Paul Manafort, the apparent Russian hacking of the DNC, the flippancy about NATO's responsibilities in the Baltics, the general conspiratorial tenor that sounds so much like a typical invited loon on the RT network, the mutual public praise– that Trump is, at least unwittingly, an agent of Putin.
Whenever I try to bring this up as potentially damaging, Americans keep telling me that the Putin connection can't be made into a campaign issue, since “Trump's supporters don't really care about foreign policy.” But that can't really be true. Surely they care about possible future foreign policies that diminish US sovereignty, or that shift the balance of geopolitical power in the world towards an autocratic Eurasia. It seems to me that the real problem is just poor information in the US: Americans seem to believe that Russia ceased to exist in 1991, that Gorbachev just gave up and closed up shop. This perception only strengthened after 2001, when US triumphalism over the fall of communism in the 1990s fused with racism and 'civilisational' bigotry to convince Americans that the Arab and Muslim world was the principal geopolitical hotspot in the world.
Tellingly, Slavic-studies departments in US universities downsized, and enrolment in Arabic courses skyrocketed (studying Russian in the early 1990s, we still got to use military-issue textbooks with helpful phrases about nuclear summits and fallout shelters). But this indifference only goes one way: Putinite ideology, while also working when expedient to cultivate small autocrats such as Le Pen fille or Viktor Orban, is monomaniacally focused on the US, all the nuclear weapons are still there, and of course Putin is interested in helping to install a leader in the US who has given up on the post-war Atlanticist liberal-democratic order.
Tanul Thakur at Caravan:
BOLLYWOOD STARDOM, though, has a particular geography. Historically, the Hindi film industry has recognised only certain parts of Mumbai. It knows Yari Road and Lokhandwala in Andheri West, where aspiring actors, screenwriters, assistant directors and directors live; Aram Nagar, where production houses hold auditions for films, television serials and advertisements; Juhu and Bandra West, home to film stars; and south Mumbai, or Town, where many movies are shot. But it doesn’t know Dharavi, Bhiwandi, Naigaon or Nalasopara, or any of the city’s other slums and sprawling suburbs.
Still, if you visit any of those slums or suburbs, you find thousands of people who don’t know this, who don’t want to know this. They, like so many of their fellow Indians, are in thrall to Bollywood. They crowd theatres to see new releases, follow stars’ lives, and, in indulgent moments, imagine some twist of fate landing them on the silver screen. Some of them take such daydreams more seriously than others. Some, like Jadav, make that dream the centre of their lives.
So they go knocking on doors, trying to find a way in. They look for acting classes that promise them a leg-up, and approach casting agents who promise to get them auditions. And, repeatedly, they find all doors shut. Because the truth is that Mumbai’s geography of Bollywood corresponds pretty much exactly to Mumbai’s geography of wealth. The city Bollywood knows is that of the haves. The city it pays no mind to is that of the have-nots.
The will to dissolve or relax boundaries is part of what makes Eisenman’s work feel so of the moment right now. It’s the same acceptance of ambiguity that allows the artist, when asked why her single-figure paintings have been mostly of men, to remark: “Representing bodies is complex. What looks masculine in a painting could be a self-determined gender mutineer, or trans, or something completely off the spectrum. It seems that I present as masculine in the world, and I think I use my body as a baseline jumping-off point for representation, which I think goes a long way toward explaining the preponderance of masculine-looking bodies in this show.” What’s true of the painted figure also goes for the act of painting itself. When pressed with the observation that the painters who caught her eye in the 1980s—the likes of Julian Schnabel and the German Neo-Expressionists—were “very macho and conservative,” Eisenman explains: “To me, it’s radical, and it felt radical when I saw it for the first time…. My feeling about painting and gender is that whatever any dude feels entitled to, I feel like: ‘Fuck, I’m entitled to that too.’”
The title of the New Museum show, though, points to the ambivalence of Eisenman’s relation to the age-old traditions. At least some of her paintings are genuine allegories, with appropriately moralizing titles like The Work of Labor and Care (2004); Progress: Real and Imagined (2006), a diptych oddly represented in this show by just one of its panels; and The Triumph of Poverty (2009). At the same time, they are also send-ups of allegory, maybe even expressions of disgust with it. The didactic function of painting can only be sustained, Eisenman implies, if it is pursued with self-critical humor, if it tacitly acknowledges that it does not speak from a position of vested authority— allegorizing on behalf of church or state or any social consensus on values—but instead on the basis of its own cogency.
Brandon Kreitler at the LA Review of Books:
In his short new book The Hatred of Poetry, Ben Lerner glosses the problem like this: the poet wants to say more than can be said, wants language to do more than it does, wants to transcend. (The poet who merely wants to communicate would do better, in Richard Hugo’s advice, to use the phone.) The consolidation of this ambitious but diffuse impulse into a verbal act — the arrival at actual terms fixed on the page — is an unacceptable circumscription of the impulse, a failure. But the failure is unavoidable. It inheres in the activity of putting words on paper. Lerner writes: “Poetry isn’t hard, it’s impossible.”
“Poetry” here names that utterance which would somehow surpass the limits of speech: a conceptual category that, though by definition empty of examples, tempts the history of literary production like the ghost of some God or father we could have known or might know yet but can’t humanly grasp. The poet feels the dull memory of other knowledge of the tongue and can’t reproduce it. She has to use the words there are for such things as have names — language is the fallen medium, built of worn material — but what she wants from an act of reference exceeds what any amalgam of communicable content can actually do. She wants to make moonlight felt, not speak again the name of the moon.
Julia Rampen in New Statesman:
This is one speech he won't be able to steal. After her stirring speech at the Democratic Convention, Michelle Obama can be sure of one thing – Melania Trump won't be able to copy it. Obama, like her husband, is a fine orator, so much so that the wife of Republican nominee Donald Trump was widely suspected of borrowing from her speeches. But those who crowded into the audience on Monday night could be sure of the real deal. Obama did not mention Trump by name, but in an implicit criticism of him, she spoke passionately about the responsibilities of the Presidency, and how the United States had moved on since the days of slavery and oppression.
The Obamas knew their kids were watching them, she said: “We know that our words and actions matter.” And in a reference to Trump's Twitter obsession, she declared: The issues a President faces “cannot be boiled down to 140 characters”. Obama, whose husband fought a fierce campaign against Hillary Clinton to clinch the Democratic nomination in 2008, now heaped praise on his former rival. Clinton was a “true public servant” who “did not pack up and go home” after losing to Obama in 2008, she said. She had carried out “relentless, thankless work” to actually make a difference in children's lives.
—from the sculpture by Rodin
Within the Whirling Moment
Those lovers linked in bronze
will not escape the wonder
of their first embrace.
Today's passion is blown of air
not hewn in stone:
a fragmenting spiral
within the whirling moment.
by Janis Rapoport
from Within the Whirling Moment
Toronto: House of Anansi Press, 1967
Pam Belluck in The New York Times:
“Has the person become agitated, aggressive, irritable, or temperamental?” the questionnaire asks. “Does she/he have unrealistic beliefs about her/his power, wealth or skills?” Or maybe another kind of personality change has happened: “Does she/he no longer care about anything?” If the answer is yes to one of these questions — or others on a new checklist — and the personality or behavior change has lasted for months, it could indicate a very early stage of dementia, according to a group of neuropsychiatrists and Alzheimer’s experts. They are proposing the creation of a new diagnosis: mild behavioral impairment. The idea is to recognize and measure something that some experts say is often overlooked: Sharp changes in mood and behavior may precede the memory and thinking problems of dementia.
…Dr. Zahinoor Ismail, a neuropsychiatrist at the University of Calgary and member of the group proposing the new diagnosis, said studies and anecdotes suggested that emotional and behavioral changes were “a stealth symptom,” part of the dementia disease process, not separate from it. Whatever is eroding memory and thinking skills in the dementia process may also affect the brain’s systems of emotional regulation and self-control, he said. If two people have mild cognitive impairment, the one with mood or behavior changes develops full-blown dementia faster, he said. Alzheimer’s patients with those symptoms “do much worse over time;” after death, autopsies have shown they had more brain damage. Of course, not everyone experiencing mood swings with age is suffering warning signs of dementia. Dr. Ismail emphasized that, to be considered M.B.I., a symptom should have lasted for at least six months and be “not just a blip in behavior, but a fundamental change.” Still, some experts worry that naming and screening for such an early-stage syndrome might end up categorizing large numbers of people, making some concerned they will develop Alzheimer’s when there are not yet effective treatments for the disease.
by Ram Manikkalingam
I am sitting in Colombo, Sri Lanka. We are at peace and are enjoying real democracy after more than three decades of civil war and almost five years of creeping authoritarian rule under the previous president. I spend half my time in Amsterdam, just a two-hour train ride to Brussels and a couple more to Paris – sites of so many attacks recently. It is surreal that Europe, the continent I went to, to avoid being targeted by terrorism in my country, is now becoming less and less safe while Sri Lanka has become an island of peace and democracy. While the cost of how we did it can be debated, and continues to be, there is no denying that we ended up in a good place for all of us in Sri Lanka, and the world too.
Meanwhile, (with perhaps a small degree of schadenfreude) I watch Europe become tense, turn in on itself, exclude communities, become subject to attacks, impose emergency law, and break apart with Brexit. I ask myself what is really going on in Europe. While we may draw a direct line from the invasion of Iraq to the attacks against civilians in Paris and Brussels, that alone is insufficient to explain why young men in Brussels and Paris will travel thousands of miles away to join a movement with which they have little social, cultural or political affinity. And it simply does not even begin to explain Brexit, Scottish nationalism, or Marie Le Pen. Maybe, just maybe, it might be more useful to start in Europe and ask how have things changed in the past decade since I have been living there. What do I see now that I did not see before? And how would I describe the politics of Europe to someone who had never been there, not experienced it, and needed to understand it better?
For all its progress and enlightenment, Europe is still a continent of Tribes – Big Tribes, Small Tribes and New Tribes. Big Tribes have their own state. Within this state they feel dominant (or at least feel that they ought to be). These Big Tribes may be as big as the English and French or as small as the Dutch and Danes. What they have in common is they live under their own political roof. Then we have the Small Tribes. These are invariably the Tribes that live within the borders of a state the Big Tribes dominate. These Tribes range from the Scots and the Northern Irish, to the Basques, the Tyroleans and the Corsicans. They yearn for a political roof that is closer to them. Or at least they reject the political roof that has been built on top of them by others who are more powerful then they. And finally you have the New Tribes. These are Tribes related to Europe’s colonial project. Some arrived during colonialism, others after colonialism ended, and still others continue to enter today. This Tribe is viewed as foreign by the Big Tribes. But they are, or at least feel they are, as European as the other two Tribes. Let me unpack each of these Tribes a little further.
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