poetry and politics

CitizenFrank Guan at The Point:

If poetry has a distinct class character, it also has a pronounced racial bent. Just as the American middle class is disproportionately white compared to the general population, an overwhelming majority of American poets are white. The parallel with high art and high fashion, those other tertiary fields, is instructive: in each field the criteria by which quality is assessed is so subjective, and the costs of entry for members of marginalized social groups so high—university certification, unpaid internships, the extra time required to master shibboleths and mores one’s white peers have been well versed in since childhood—that the demographics of the field, historically dominated by a white supermajority, remain as they are. Of all American literary genres, poetry has always been, by a wide margin, the most segregated. Though they appear together in anthologies, the fact is that white poets and black poets belong to two completely distinct traditions whose mutual relation, at best, has been nothing more than glancing.

The canon of white American poetry, with its extremely strong inclination toward still life and landscape and its implicit upper-middle-class presumption that solitude, not company, is the primary and most immediate (though not necessarily most desired) state of being, is predicated on white social hegemony: for most of American history only whites had free access to the countryside and the stability and autonomy required to be at ease there. Contrarily, the canon of black American poetry, with its invariable ground notes of defiance and urgency and its acute social awareness, constitutes a Sisyphean effort to assert the collective humanity of black Americans.

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farming in space

Dyson_1-101316Freeman Dyson at the NYRB:

Farming is an art that achieved success after innumerable failures. So it was in the past and so it will be in the future. Any successful human settlement in space will begin as the Polynesian settlements in the Pacific islands began, with people bringing pigs and chickens and edible plants on their canoes, along with the skills to breed them. The authors of Beyond Earth imagine various possible futures for human settlement in various places, but none of their settlers resemble the Polynesians.

Jon Willis’s All These Worlds Are Yours describes the possibilities for alien forms of life to exist in remote places and the practical steps we might take to discover them. The places that are discussed are the planet Mars, the moon Europa of Jupiter, the moons Titan and Enceladus of Saturn, and the newly discovered planets orbiting around other stars. Willis considers Enceladus to be the most promising place for us to look for evidence of life. Enceladus has active geysers spraying jets of salt water and steam into space from hot spots on its surface. The geysers must originate in an underground system of channels connected to a warm deep ocean in which life might be flourishing. To study possible traces of life in microscopic detail, we should send an unmanned spacecraft through the jets to collect samples of droplets and vapor and bring the samples back to Earth to be examined at leisure in a well-equipped laboratory.

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Hillary Clinton Brings Out the Real Donald Trump

John Cassidy in The New Yorker:

First-Debate-08-1200Words matter when you run for President,” Hillary Clinton said toward the end of Monday night’s happening at Hofstra University, on Long Island. Clinton was criticizing Donald Trump for his loose language regarding America’s allies in Asia, but she could have been summing up the lopsided debate, which saw her doing virtually everything she needed to do while Trump indicted himself with his own words. As anybody familiar with Clinton’s career could have predicted, she was extremely well prepared for her first debate against Trump. After finding an opening to voice the key theme of her campaign early on—“We have to build an economy that works for everyone, not just those at the top”—she spoke confidently and with precision more or less throughout. Although some of her attack lines sounded rehearsed—“Trumped-up trickle-down” was one that she repeated—they were still effective. She didn’t say anything that will come back to haunt her, and her only really awkward moments came when her opponent attacked her for reversing her position on the Trans Pacific Partnership. Trump, on the other hand, had evidently been telling the truth, for once, when, in the lead-up to Monday night, he said he didn’t believe in spending a lot of time on debate prep. His spontaneity and direct language played to his advantage in some of the debate’s early exchanges. But as the night wore on, and as the discussions got more detailed, his lack of respect for the format got him into all sorts of trouble. First, there were his errors of omission. Trump’s harsh stance on immigration and his depiction of Clinton and other professional politicians as puppets of corporate interests have both helped propel his campaign to this point. But on Monday, speaking before an enormous national audience, he barely mentioned the wall he wants to build across the U.S. border with Mexico, and he didn’t bring up Clinton’s ties to monied interests at all.

Then there was the damage done by the things he did say. At one point, Lester Holt, the moderator, asked Trump about his refusal to release his tax returns, a subject that Trump must have known would come up. He replied by saying that he would release his returns “when she”—Clinton—“releases her thirty-three thousand e-mails that have been deleted.“ Perhaps Trump thought he was being smart with this this answer, but it only gave Clinton a chance to respond, which she did with relish. “So you’ve got to ask yourself: Why won’t he release his tax returns?” she said, seizing the moment. “Maybe he’s not as rich as he says he is … maybe he’s not as charitable as he claims to be.” Then Clinton raised another theory, one that I and others have written about: “Or maybe he doesn’t want the American people, all of you watching tonight, to know that he’s paid nothing in federal taxes.” Here, you’d expect the target of the attack to sense the danger. Evidently, Trump didn’t. Having interrupted Clinton during most of her previous answers, he did so again. “That makes me smart,” he said. Even on Twitter, where people were pulling apart Trump’s words with the relish of a class of third graders dissecting a worm, it took a few seconds for this statement to sink in. Had he really just boasted that he didn’t pay any federal taxes? Indeed, he had.

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When a Spouse Dies, Resilience Can Be Uneven

Jane E. Brody in The New York Times:

BRODY-master768Losing a beloved life partner is never easy at any age, no matter the circumstance. The loss can be sudden and totally unexpected — a fatal heart attack, traffic accident or natural tragedy like a flood or earthquake. Or the loss can be long in coming from a progressive illness that gives the surviving spouse weeks, months, even years to prepare for and presumably ”adjust” to its eventual inevitability. Psychologists have long maintained that after a brief period of sometimes intense bereavement, the vast majority of surviving spouses adjust well, returning to their previous work, daily routines and prior state of contentment within a few months to a year – a psychological outcome referred to as resilience. Studies by George A. Bonanno and colleagues at Columbia University as well as others, for example, have found that 60 percent of people who lost a spouse were resilient — satisfied with their lives and not depressed.

But new research is calling this global assessment inadequate to describe the aftermath of spousal loss for many if not most people, suggesting a need for more effective and specific ways to help them return to their prior state of well-being. Someone who ranks high in life satisfaction may nonetheless be having considerable difficulty in other domains that can diminish quality of life, like maintaining a satisfying social life, performing well at work or knowing who can help when needed. The Jewish faith in which I was raised offers one such source of support, specifying a period of mourning that gives survivors needed time to adjust to a new normal. It designates a weeklong visitation — the shiva — during which friends and relatives gather with the bereaved to express condolences and relate memories of the deceased. It also calls for a yearlong period of readjustment that includes daily prayers and no attempt to meet a new partner.

More here.

The Dangerous Discounting of Donald Trump

by Ali Minai

DJT_Headshot_V2By this point in US Election 2016, everyone acknowledges that the Presidential candidacy of Donald Trump is one of the most transformative phenomena to arise in American society in a long time – possibly since the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, of which it is, in some ways, a perverted mirror image. However, it's ludicrous and perverse aspects should not blind anyone – including its adherents – to its corrosive but real power. Those who had until recently discounted Trump are gradually beginning to realize this, and mockery is being replaced with a mixture of fear and perplexity.

Foremost among the perplexed are the American elites and the chattering classes, who have tended to treat the candidacy of Donald Trump for President as a running farce. His frequently offensive and ignorant statements – usually via twitter – have become a staple of late-night comedy, and the cause for general derision in the news media. A surge in the polls after the Republican convention triggered a temporary bout of concern that he might actually win, but that concern receded as a very successful Democratic convention and Trump's disparaging of the Khan family boosted Hillary Clinton to a double digit national lead. A narrative settled in that Trump was finished, even as Clinton's lead has gradually declined, and now stands in the 2-4 percent range. While this has triggered a new round of anguish among Democrats, it has not yet completely changed the overall notion that, surely, the American people will not vote for someone as patently unqualified and irresponsible as Trump. The American people themselves have bolstered this assumption, with poll after poll showing that large majorities of voters consider Clinton more qualified and temperamentally suited to be President. A recent survey showed that nearly half of voters – including 22% of Trump supporters! – believe that he will use a nuclear weapon. Yet, what is often left unexplained is why the same polls typically show the head-to-head race between Trump and Clinton as very close. The implicit belief seems to be that voters will eventually come to their senses. In fact, this discrepancy should indicate exactly the opposite: That a certain chunk of voters have looked at both candidates, realized that Trump is unqualified to be President, but are nevertheless willing to vote for him. These voters have apparently considered and rejected rational arguments against Trump, suggesting that no further rational argument is likely to sway them. The same is true for the issues of bigotry and racism that are clearly relevant with regard to Trump. Most Clinton-supporters and the elite media have assumed that, once Trump's long history of bigotry against minorities and women became well-known, it would be impossible for him to win. The initial response to the Khan controversy reinforced this view. However, recent polling data suggests that this notion is not altogether justified either. As with competence, there is a segment of voters who know about Trump's bigotry, do not agree with it, but are still willing to overlook it. This segment is not necessarily identical with the one willing to overlook his incompetence, but there is probably considerable overlap. In any case, it appears that counting on the good sense of American voters to protect the world from Trump may be too optimistic.

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by Tasneem Zehra Husain
ImgThere's no doubt about it: conflict commands attention.
Perhaps it made sense as an evolutionary strategy. Historically, the conflicts we would become aware of were those that occurred in our immediate vicinity, and as such, could have life or death consequences. The penalty for ignoring such a scenario, in favor of something more pleasant, could be fatal. Those of us who attuned their ears to sounds of eminent disaster lived longer.
Focusing on potentially explosive situations might have served us well in days gone by (and of course it is still a necessary reflex in many scenarios) but continuing to do so, in our increasingly connected world where the news rains down on us incessantly, means that we are subjected to a barrage of negativity all day long.
The sensational headlines that follow us everywhere, the incessant chorus of strife and war and disaster that closes in on us, is not because the world is going to hell in a hand basket, but because the media giants who bombard us with soundbites around the clock know that conflict has the ability to arrest us in your tracks, to force us to pay attention. Life isn't any harder now than it was a century ago, in fact in many ways it is much easier; scholars have argued that the world is actually becoming a better, more just place; but since we hear mostly about what goes wrong, both in our backyards and at the other end of the globe, each of us is burdened with a planet's worth of woe. And as a result, we are growing increasingly weary.
Perhaps it is to counter this feeling of fatigue and ennui that a new wave of positivity has started rippling through the world. There is a slow, but growing, trend towards ‘feel-good' stories, reminders that in this apparently doomed world, there are surprising moments of grace. This is a movement I can completely get behind. Attention works such that it multiplies that which is focused on; stories of reconciliation, of people helping each other, of wounds being healed and problems solved – these act as a balm for our minds and our souls.
Funnily enough, what prompted these philosophical musings today was the thought that Nobel season is upon us. Just over a week from now, on the morning of Tuesday, October 5th, someone (or three someones) will be getting that fabled call from Sweden. Of course we can't ever say for sure, but there are years when the choice seems far more obvious than in others. I think it's fair to say that the international physics community would be quite shocked if the prize was not awarded for the detection of gravitational waves, and Rainer Weiss, Kip Thorne and Ronald Drever did not end up wearing this year's laurels.

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Vladimir Židovec Overshares

by Holly A. Case


Croatian State Archives, main reading room

This story—a true one—is about a graphomaniac. I found him in the Croatian State Archives, Zagreb, where even the washrooms have signature tiles. Art nouveau beads drip from the lamps over the desks and carefully restored owls stare down from the tiled ceiling. The building, once wasted on university students cramming for exams, is now reserved exclusively for carriers of the twin fevers, bibliophilia and graphomania (that is, for historians), and is saturated with the smell of old paper and the dust of disintegration.

There, in a collection marked F. 227 MVP NDH Zagreb, 1941-1945, I came upon the chubby, bespectacled Vladimir Židovec (b. 1907), one-time lawyer and “first-class chess player.” His paper footprint filled folder upon folder, spilling over the edges of collections: foreign ministry, interior ministry, party archive, people's tribunal… I tracked him through the Second World War; shopped with him for his first tuxedo when the brand new German puppet known as the Independent State of Croatia sent him as its ambassador to Bulgaria; listened in as he and the Bulgarian prime minister talked politics over cabbage and pork cutlets; checked inventories of his state-furnished rooms in Sofia; bent over desks and tables as he wrote and wrote and wrote; and gawked at the Bulgarian social and political scene through his quirky “who's who” of Bulgaria.

Dimo Ačkov: “Knows Turkish well. Was a personal friend of Kemal Pasha [Atatürk].”

Dimitar Čorbev: “Very sly man. Some affairs have been mentioned in connection with his name. Good speaker.”

Georgi Genov: “Easily frightened. Hasn't left his house in the evening for a long time.”

Mihail Genovski: “Lately he has come under suspicion by the Germans. It is to be expected that steps will be taken against him.”

His documentary zeal vis-à-vis the lives of others left little room for details of his own person, so it was only in a folder of personnel files that I found certificates of recognition and praise from his superiors. My own assessment was similar, but for different reasons: One of his colleagues, the Croat ambassador to Slovakia, was barely literate by comparison, wrote few and uninformative reports, and got drunk and went to the beach, where he bawled out youngsters for going to the beach rather than joining the fight against the Soviets.

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by Richard King

Eleph 1When economist Branko Milanović first published his now-famous chart showing changes in global income distribution between 1988 and 2008 he furnished the world with a neat explanation for the various anti-establishment types now rocking the boat of Western politics: sandwiched between the Asian middle class and an increasingly bloated 1%—the winners from twenty years of “high” globalisation—the middle class of the rich world had been left behind and was voting in the rabblerousers. He also furnished it with a serviceable metaphor. From memory, it was Toby Nangle who first noticed that the chart resembled an elephant, and his inspired little graffito (below) twittered across the world in a flash. Journalists needed no further prompting. The chart was the elephant in the room … No: It was a sleeping elephant that threatened to wake up and destroy the joint … No: It was the eponymous pachyderm in the Indian parable of the blind men and the elephant—a beast the nature and significance of which depended on which bit of it you happened to be feeling … And so on and so on.

Eleph 2Now the metaphor-making has entered a new phase. Responding to a report by the Resolution Foundation that seems to cast doubt on Milanović's data, or some of the interpretations of it, some commentators have declared the “elephant chart” irrelevant. Once called “the most important chart for understanding politics today”—the one gif you need in order to make sense of the current intersection of domestic politics and macroeconomic trends—it is now a liability, a statistical howler. Scribblers in the conservative sheets were especially keen to ventilate the report's findings and the presses ran hot with their picturesque efforts. The elephant had been shot, no, tamed …No: It had wandered off from the herd and gone in search of the elephant graveyard … It had packed its trunk and said goodbye to the circus. (Okay I made that last one up; but surely it's only a matter of time …)

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The European Union used to solve collective problems, now they are killing it

by Thomas R. Wells

ScreenHunter_2246 Sep. 26 10.04Collective action problems pit individual selfishness against the collective interest in areas as diverse as pollution, trade, peace, and public roads. The invisible hand of the market can't reach them. Instead we need politics. The European Union used to be good at this. But not any more.

An example. Public goods like roads and schools and police are worth far more than they cost. We would all be better off as individuals if we each donated some portion of our gains from them into a collective fund for providing them. Unfortunately, we would each be even better off if we were able to escape paying our fair share while everyone else paid theirs. Then we would have our cake and be able to eat it too, to drive on the roads that other people paid for. But then only suckers would contribute, and so the roads wouldn't get built and we would all travel very slowly and inconveniently.

Collective action problems are mitigated rather than solved. The main approach is the one recommended by Hobbes in his classic statement of the problem: we call our donations ‘taxes' and appoint someone with a big stick to come along and make sure everyone pays. Introducing an external power ('the government') with the power to punish anti-social behaviour changes the pay-offs attached to our choice of whether to contribute to the public good. Now individual rationality lines up with rational collective choice and the roads get built.

There are however two alternative approaches to the Big Stick. We can institutionalise cooperation, for example by making it easier to make binding promises to each other. Or we can moralise it, by taking up a 'team' perspective and acting on the maxim, 'Act as I would wish others to do'.

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Frugality, simplicity, and environmentalism

by Emrys Westacott

Many people today are drawn toward the ideals, values, and lifestyles that fall under the broad concept of “simple living.” ImgresDownsizing, downshifting, embracing radical frugality, building and living in “tiny houses,” going back to the land, growing one's own food, choosing greater self-sufficiency over consumerism, and seeking to preserve or revive traditional crafts: these are all part of this trend. So, too, is the Slow movement, a general term for the various ways in which people seek to combat the frenetic pace of modern life. The movement includes Slow Food, Slow Cities, Slow Sex (all originating in Italy), the Sloth Club (Japan), the Society for the Deceleration of Time (Austria), and the Long Now Foundation.[1]

According to some, the millennial generation (roughly those born between 1980 and 2000) are helping to boost this trend Compared to their elders, they are less interested in home ownership, happy to share cars rather than buy them, and savvy at using technology to save money and keep things simple through using companies like Zipcar (transport) Airbnb (accommodation), and thredUP (clothes).

A lot of people live frugally out of necessity, of course. But there are also philosophical arguments in favor of simple living. In a venerable tradition stretching that goes back to ancient thinkers like the Buddha, Socrates, and Epicurus, two lines of argument have been especially prominent.

1. Simple living is associated with moral virtue. E.g. It keeps us physically and spiritually pure, fosters traits like resilience and independence, cultivates sound values, and is typically viewed as a sign of integrity (think Gandhi).

2. Simple living is the surest path to happiness. E.g. It helps us be content with what we have, enhances our enjoyment of simple pleasures, allows us more leisure time by enabling us to work less, keeps us closer to nature, and generally promotes peace of mind.

In recent times an additional reason for embracing simplicity has come to the fore: namely, the environmentalist argument.

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On “The Discrete Charm of Geometry”

by Carl Pierer


As in any other academic field, outsiders as well as insiders often ask what do pure mathematicians actually do? What do they work on and how do they work? It probably does not help that whether the objects of study actually exist, or rather, what it would mean to say that they exist, is unclear. Who, then are the people who are drawn to this field?

It is notoriously difficult to make a film on intellectual work. Yet, there has recently been a surge in this kind of films: from Margarethe von Trotta's Hannah Arendt (2012) and Maria Schrader's Stefan Zweig: A Farewell to Europe (2016) to the more Hollywoodian Morten Tyldum's The Imitation Game (2014) and Matt Brown's The Man Who Knew Infinity (2015). The difficulty is really rather trivial: there is not very much to show about intellectual work. Somebody sitting at a desk, tearing her hair out? Typing a couple of words, only to delete three more sentences? Or the theatrical stare into the distance while chewing on her glasses? That hardly makes for a feature-length film. But the protagonists of these films are famous beyond their respective field. As some kind of ‘intellectual celebrity', their lives and characters have a special sort of attraction. There is a natural interest in their persona, maybe because of their work's status in general culture. To tell their story, then, is sure to attract interest, because their names have become a sort of institution. It is quite a different task to shoot a film on current, less glamorous and perhaps more ‘ordinary' research: the ongoing work of academics.

After the very well-received Colors of Math, Ekaterina Eremenko has recently come to Edinburgh to screen her most recent film The Discrete Charm of Geometry. Eremenko graduated with a masters degree in mathematics from Moscow State University in 1990, but later obtained a second masters degree in Film Directing from the Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography. She has directed a few documentaries before turning to films about mathematics.

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Alice Maher: The Glorious Maid of the Charnel House

by Sue Hubbard

Purdy Hicks Gallery, London

ScreenHunter_2242 Sep. 26 09.42Ideas of shape-shifting are ancient. The possibility that a person can take the form of another being – usually an animal – can be traced back thousands of years, across diverse cultures, continents and religions. Shape-shifting appears in fairy tales and myths. In stories from Greek mythology, Zeus transformed into a swan, a bull, and an ant. The myths of the ancient Egyptians depicted gods with animal heads, such as Horus and the dog-headed Anubis, while those of the Norsemen showed the mischievous god Loki change into a giant and a woman, as well as various bestial forms.

Some of the earliest depictions of shape-shifting come from the Cave of the Trois-Frères, in southern France, where many believe that the drawings indicate a shamanic belief in the ritual of transformation. In later Christianity shape-shifting became a metaphor for the merely human to metamorphose into the divine. In the Mass bread and wine are miraculously transformed into the body of Christ.

The Irish artist, Alice Maher, has always flirted with notions of transformation in its many guises. In a series of autobiographical photographs in which she used herself as a model, she covered her face with a mask of snail shells, wore a necklace of lambs' tongues, and covered her body and arms with birds' wings and moss. These powerful images spoke of the slippage between the feminine and the chthonic, between nature and nurture, the sensual, the profane and the divine. Working with a diverse range of materials she has, in the past, created installations, drawings, sculptures and photographs.

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The price of free speech in Bangladesh

Ahsan Akbar in the Los Angeles Times:

La-1474647113-snap-photoIn February this year the authorities in Bangladesh took Shamsuzzoha Manik, a 73-year-old publisher, into custody for publishing a book titled “Islam Bitorko” (“Debate on Islam”). His arrest and the shutting down of his stall marked a sour moment in the nation’s largest book fair, Ekushey Boi Mela, held annually at Bangla Academy in honor of the International Mother Language Day. While the book, deemed to be offensive to Islam, has been taken out of circulation, seven months later the publisher remains behind bars.

Manik’s imprisonment adds to a series of recent attacks on freedom of expression in the country, which have included a number of killings perpetrated by extremist groups. There are laws that allow the government to ban or confiscate any publication that may be considered blasphemous. The law extends to any form of publication — in print or online — and led to the arrest of four bloggers in 2013 for “hurting religious sentiments” with their blog posts. Self and state-censorship coupled with lack of protection for writers at risk have meant free speech and freedom to publish are in dire straits.

Bangladesh is not unique in facing the threat of terrorism, which is now a global issue, but it is sadly the only country where writers and publishers are specifically on the hit lists of the killers.

More here.

New Take on an Ancient Method Improves Way to Find Prime Numbers

Matias Loewy in Scientific American:

ScreenHunter_2241 Sep. 25 23.02Peruvian mathematician Harald Helfgott gained worldwide attention in 2013 when he solved a 271-year-old problem: the so-called Goldbach’s weak conjecture, according to which every odd number greater than 5 can be expressed as the sum of three prime numbers—such as: 2 + 3 + 5 = 11 and 19 + 13 + 3 = 35.

But Helfgott, 38, went even farther back in time and conceived an improved version of the sieve of Eratosthenes, a popular method for finding prime numbers that was formulated circa 240 B.C. Helfgott’s proposed version would reduce the requirement of physical space in computer memory, which in turn would reduce the execution time of programs designed to make that calculation.

Prime numbers are something like “atoms of mathematics,” which can only be divided by themselves and the number 1. Eratosthenes of Cyrene—a Greek mathematician, astronomer and geographer who was director of the Library of Alexandria and became famous for calculating the circumference of Earth—also proposed a practical method to identify them: the “sieve,” or filter. “Like many other children, I was taught this it in primary school when I was 10, with a table,” says Helfgott, who is currently a researcher at the National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) and the University of Göttingen.

In order to determine with this sieve all primes between 1 and 100, for example, one has to write down the list of numbers in numerical order and start crossing them out in a certain order: first, the multiples of 2 (except the 2); then, the multiples of 3, except the 3; and so on, starting by the next number that had not been crossed out. The numbers that survive this procedure will be the primes. The method can be formulated as an algorithm and computers can quickly run it.

More here.