Reconciling Einstein with quantum mechanics may require abandoning the notion that cause always precedes effect

Huw Price and Ken Wharton in Aeon:

ScreenHunter_2216 Sep. 14 22.59Isaac Newton had a problem with the concept of action-at-a-distance. On one hand, like other 17th-century mechanist philosophers, he was deeply suspicious of the idea. As he wrote to the theologian Richard Bentley in 1693:

[T]hat one body may act upon another at a distance through a vacuum, without the mediation of anything else, by and through which their action and force may be conveyed from one to the other, is to me so great an absurdity, that I believe no man who has in philosophical matters a competent faculty of thinking, can ever fall into it.

On the other hand, there’s his own theory of gravity, published in hisPrincipia several years earlier. It says that one body can exert a force on another, at arbitrary distance, without the need for any intermediary. What was a poor genius to do?

How Newton dealt with this dilemma in his own mind is still a matter for debate. Privately, his letter to Bentley continues: ‘Gravity must be caused by an agent acting constantly according to certain laws; but whether this agent be material or immaterial, I have left open to the consideration of my readers.’ In public, he seems to express disdain for the question: ‘I have not as yet been able to deduce from phenomena the reason for these properties of gravity, and I do not feign hypotheses.’

Two centuries later, Albert Einstein got Newton off the hook – though not before he’d made the problem even worse. Einstein’s 1905 theory of special relativity raised a new difficulty for Newton’s theory of gravity. Instantaneous action-at-a-distance requires that the distant effect is simultaneous with the local cause. According to special relativity, however, simultaneity is relative to the observer. Different observers disagree about which pairs of events are simultaneous, and there’s simply no fact of the matter about who is right.

Without simultaneity at a distance, the notion of instantaneous action-at-a-distance doesn’t make sense.

More here.


Through the eyes of a master hacker turned security expert, William Langewiesche chronicles the rise of the Dark Net—where weapons, drugs, and information are bought, sold, and hacked—and learns how high the stakes have really become.

William Langewiesche in Vanity Fair:

The-dark-net-october-2016His name is not Opsec, but I will call him that to guard his privacy. In webspace he is known as a grand master of the dark art of hacking. He is one of a small elite—maybe a hundred, maybe fewer—all of whom are secretive and obsessed with security. They do not talk about their work with their families. They generally do not talk to the press. Nonetheless, through friends of friends, Opsec agreed to speak and to introduce me to his perspectives. In “meatspace,” as he and others like him call the real world, Opsec lives in a metropolitan area in a little wooden house by a railroad track. He is in his mid-30s, physically imposing, and not a geek. He hangs out in a local bar, where the regulars know vaguely that he works with computers.

He is a fast talker when he’s onto a subject. His mind seems to race most of the time. Currently he is designing an autonomous system for detecting network attacks and taking action in response. The system is based on machine learning and artificial intelligence. In a typical burst of words, he said, “But the automation itself might be hacked. Is the A.I. being gamed? Are you teaching the computer, or is it learning on its own? If it’s learning on its own, it can be gamed. If you are teaching it, then how clean is your data set? Are you pulling it off a network that has already been compromised? Because if I’m an attacker and I’m coming in against an A.I.-defended system, if I can get into the baseline and insert attacker traffic into the learning phase, then the computer begins to think that those things are normal and accepted. I’m teaching a robot that ‘It’s O.K.! I’m not really an attacker, even though I’m carrying an AK-47 and firing on the troops.’ And what happens when a machine becomes so smart it decides to betray you and switch sides?”

More here.

the golden age of broadway

Someenchanted-198x300Michael Adams at Open Letters Monthly:

The Golden Age of the American musical—flourishing between the corn-fed optimism of Oklahoma! in 1943 and the scruffy discontent of Hair in 1969—rested on the shoulders of a coterie of composers, lyricists, librettists, directors, and choreographers working at the height of their gifts. Radios hummed with songs mined from the latest scores. Living room turntables spun with original cast albums. Magazine covers regularly trumpeted the newest hits.

But it was the performers, the stars, who provided the delivery system, who became the worshipped—dazzling entertainers with outsize personalities who often seemed almost identical to their Hirschfeld caricatures. Alfred Drake, Ethel Merman, Carol Channing, Pearl Bailey, Robert Preston, Gwen Verdon, Judy Holliday—above-the-title names that defined an era, but who are today alive mainly in the memories of those who witnessed their dazzle first-hand.

This summer brings us a sturdy biography of one of Broadway’s defining mid-century stars as well as a frank, entertaining memoir of another, less celebrated light—though one who, ironically, may leave a more powerful mark in theatrical history.

more here.

Kashmir Stories

Munnu2Toral Gajarawala at Dissent:

How to fill in the blanks of the “K-word,” that black hole of Indian nationalism? And how might those outside the valley see Kashmir anew? A young artist has recently given us one answer. In Munnu: A Boy from Kashmir, life in the valley is etched into black-and-white cartoon boxes, and Kashmiris—reimagined as hangul, an endangered species of deer native to the region—fill the pages. Munnu is the graphic-novel debut of Malik Sajad, now twenty-nine, who began publishing cartoons in the English-language daily Greater Kashmir at the age of thirteen. It is the story of a young boy in Srinagar—Batamaloo, specifically, the neighborhood that has been referred to as the Gaza of Kashmir—and his family, his schooling, and his entry into the profession of journalism and cartooning. But it is also a story of political education, spanning from the fiery early 1990s to the relatively placid 2010s, as Munnu learns what it means to be a subject in Indian-occupied Kashmir. What it means is the routinization of curfew, the mandatory reporting of adult males to the police for security checks, months upon months of school closures, and the loss of many friends to militant training camps across the border. It also means attending funeral processions for many young men like himself.

more here.

Philip Larkin’s Photographs

Larkin-pg6-c-The-Estate-of-Philip-Larkin-copy-1033Tomas Unger at Threepenny Review:

If these photographs are invaluable for the way they send us back to the poems with new eyes, now and then you alight on a Larkin image that seems to stand as achieved art in its own right. There are some striking crowd-scenes, such as a photo inscribed “To the Match”: a procession of football fans trooping toward the grounds, some walking, some on bicycles, their backs turned toward us, any hints of identity subsumed by the suggestion of a common motion, so that the scene takes on the somewhat disquieting energy of dream-vision. For another picture, Larkin got in close to capture the streetside spectators of some public event (kept artfully out of view, indeterminate), their richly varied expressions—exuberance, boredom, anticipation, faint concern— showing the photographer’s sensitivity to the everyday drama of massed individuality. He wouldn’t have begrudged the fact that one girl in the group, only one, has turned away from the scene, a wary and kindred eye landing squarely on him (and now us). Larkin could draw as much emotion out of less peopled places, as in a touching take on Warwick Common toward winter, lined by commandingly bare trees, or of a boy standing by the Walls of Derry in what looks like a weather of shocked quiet, or of the window of a shop in Hull strewn with messily taped, handwritten notices advertising, say, Plentey of Sumer Cotton Top Skirts Cheap, or 60 Foot of Horse Rubber, or a Loveley Wedding Dress.

more here.

Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow

Tim Adams in The Guardian:

UntitledYuval Noah Harari began his academic career as a researcher of medieval warfare. His early publications had titles like “Inter-frontal Cooperation in the Fourteenth Century and Edward III’s 1346 Campaign” or “The Military Role of the Frankish Turcopoles”. Then, the story goes, having won tenure at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, he embarked on a crusade of his own. He was invited to teach a course that no one else in the faculty fancied – a broad-brush introduction to the whole of human activity on the planet. That course became a widely celebrated book, Sapiens, championed by Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates and Barack Obama, and translated into 40 languages. It satisfied perfectly an urgent desire for grand narrative in our fragmenting Buzz-fed world. The rest is macro-history. On almost every page of Sapiens, a bible of mankind’s cultural and economic and philosophical evolution, our millennial battles with plague and war and famine, Harari announced himself a Zen-like student of historical paradox: “We did not domesticate wheat,” he wrote, “wheat domesticated us”; or “How do you cause people to believe in an imagined order such as Christianity, democracy or capitalism? First, you never admit that the order is imagined.” The most intriguing section of a wildly intriguing book was the last. Harari’s history of our 75,000 years wound up, as all bibles are apt to do, with apocalyptic prophesy, a sense of an ending.

Humanity, Harari predicted, would engineer one more epochal event to rival the agricultural and scientific revolutions. Having evolved to exercise a measure of mastery over our environment, having begun to shape not only our planet, for better and worse, but also our biology, we stand, he argued, at the point of creating networked intelligences with a far greater capacity for reason than our own. The result was likely to be a lose-lose scenario for the species. Sapiens would disappear in the foreseeable future either because they had appropriated such mind-making powers as to become unrecognisable or because they had destroyed themselves through environmental catastrophe. Either way, judgment day was approaching. Like all great epics, Sapiens demanded a sequel. Homo Deus, in which that likely apocalyptic future is imagined in spooling detail, is that book. It is a highly seductive scenario planner for the numerous ways in which we might overreach ourselves. “Modernity is a deal,” Harari writes. “The entire contract can be summarised in a single phrase: humans agree to give up meaning in exchange for power.” That power, he suggests, may in the near term give us godlike attributes: the ability to extend lifespans and even cheat death, the agency to create new life forms, to become intelligent designers of our own Galapagos, the means to end war and famine and plague. There will be a price to pay for this power, however.

More here.

The precision-oncology illusion

Vinay Prasad in Nature:

NaturePrecision oncology promises to pair individuals with cancer with drugs that target the specific mutations in their tumour, in the hope of producing long-lasting remission and extending their survival. The basic idea is to use genetic testing to link patients with the drugs that will work best for them, irrespective of the tissue of origin of their tumour. Enthusiasm has been fuelled by reports of exceptional or super responders — individuals for whom experimental therapies seem to work spectacularly well. In one such example, an individual with metastatic bladder cancer showed a dramatic response to the drug everolimus1. Sequencing later revealed that the patient had a mutation that affects the mTOR pathway, which is the mechanism of action of everolimus. Yet despite the hype surrounding rare cases such as these, most people with cancer do not benefit from the precision strategy, nor has this approach been shown to improve outcomes in controlled studies. Precision oncology remains a hypothesis in need of verification.

Few patients benefit from precision oncology. Data from some 2,600 people enrolled in a sequencing programme at the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas, showed that just 6.4% were paired with a targeted drug for identified mutations2. Similarly, the Molecular Analysis for Therapy Choice (NCI-MATCH) trial at the US National Cancer Institute has enrolled 795 people who have relapsed solid tumours and lymphoma, but as of May 2016 it had only been able to pair 2% of patients with a targeted therapy. But being assigned such a therapy is not proof of benefit. When patients with diverse, relapsed cancers are given drugs based on biological markers, only around 30% respond at all, and the median progression-free survival is just 5.7 months4. Multiplying the percentage of patients receiving targeted therapies by this response rate, I estimate that precision oncology will benefit around 1.5% of patients with relapsed and refractory solid tumours.

More here.

Wednesday Poem


My father’s in my fingers, but my mother’s in my palms.
I lift them up and look at them with pleasure –
I know my parents made me by my hands.

They may have been repelled to separate lands,
to separate hemispheres, may sleep with other lovers,
but in me they touch where fingers link to palms.

With nothing left of their togetherness but friends
who quarry for their image by a river,
at least I know their marriage by my hands.

I shape a chapel where a steeple stands.
And when I turn it over,
my father’s by my fingers, my mother’s by my palms

demure before a priest reciting psalms.
My body is their marriage register.
I re-enact their wedding with my hands.

So take me with you, take up the skin’s demands
for mirroring in bodies of the future.
I’ll bequeath my fingers, if you bequeath your palms.
We know our parents make us by our hands.

by Sinead Morrissey
from The State of the Prisons
publisher: Carcanet, Manchester, 2005
ISBN: 1 85754 775 6

‘Mischling,’ a Holocaust Tale of Twin Sisters in Mengele’s Grip

Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times:

ScreenHunter_2213 Sep. 13 22.07

Affinity Konar, former 3QD columnist

“During the period of the past century that I call Night,” Elie Wiesel wrote in a 2005 essay, “medicine was practiced in certain places not to heal but to harm, not to fight off death but to serve it. In the conflict between Good and Evil during the Second World War, the infamous Nazi doctors played a crucial role. They preceded the torturers and assassins in the science of organized cruelty that we call the Holocaust.”

The quintessence of that evil was embodied in Josef Mengele, the Auschwitz physician who not only sent countless men, women and children to the gas chambers, but also performed grotesque experiments on selected prisoners — especially twins, whom he eagerly sought out upon arrival.

Though the children he selected were spared immediate death, they were subjected to monstrous surgeries and deliberately infected with diseases; he injected chemicals into eyes, in an effort to change their color, and kept some of his subjects in tiny cages. Of about 1,500 pairs of twins in Mengele’s “Zoo,” fewer than 200 individuals survived the war.

Mengele’s crimes form the backdrop of Affinity Konar’s affecting new novel, “Mischling,” which takes its title from the term the Nazis used to denote people of mixed heritage.

More here.

The Killer Cats Are Winning!

Natalie Angier in the New York Review of Books:

K10809In the view of Peter P. Marra and Chris Santella in Cat Wars, the jaunty image of the house cat as a kind of lap-sized leopard and the powerful, almost parental love that cat owners feel for the increasingly popular pet obscure another, darker truth about Felis catus. Free-roaming domestic cats, they argue, are an environmental menace of staggering and still-escalating proportions. They are “cuddly killers” that butcher tens of billions of songbirds, small mammals, reptiles, and lizards each year and push vulnerable species toward extinction. Cats hunt when they are hungry and hunt when they are full. “In the United States,” the authors write, “more birds and mammals die at the mouths of cats than from wind turbines, automobile strikes, pesticides and poisons, collisions with skyscrapers and windows, and other so-called direct anthropogenic causes combined.”

Marra, who directs the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center in Washington, and Santella, a journalist, attribute about a third of the annual cat-linked carnage to pet cats that are allowed to come and go as they please. The rest is the work of unowned cats: former pets that were abandoned or wandered off—otherwise known as strays—and the feral offspring of strays. The loose-cat problem is not limited to the US. The prestigious International Union for Conservation of Nature lists Felis catus as one of the hundred “worst invasive alien species” in the world, right up there with the Anopheles mosquito, the zebra mussel, and Dutch elm disease.

More here.

Ketchup sandwiches and other things stupid poor people eat

Anastasia Basil in Think Progress:

ScreenHunter_2212 Sep. 13 21.56I met this woman named Mae. She’s a van driver for a production company. She works 14-hour days but says she doesn’t mind, says she keeps one eye on the road and the other on the prize — a paycheck that has to last through the dead months.

We’re driving through a poor stretch of Atlanta. Dirty streets. Old houses. Plastic toys upturned in front yards, no kids though. The neighborhood is quiet. I live in L.A., land of nannies and gardeners where the hills are alive with the sound of toddlers and leaf blowers. I prefer Atlanta. You can find parking at the grocery store in the middle of the day. In L.A. it doesn’t matter what time it is, the Trader Joe’s is packed with SAHs and WAHs (stay-at-homes and work-at-homes.)

We pass a decades-old Buick Skylark. I point it out.

“You into cars?” Mae asks.

I’m not into cars, but my dad and I once abandoned one of those Buicks on the side of a Florida highway when I was a teenager. That’s how my family did cars — we bought them on their last leg and left them where they died. I tell her how I’d come home from high school and there’d be nothing in the fridge but a bottle of red wine vinegar and a head of lettuce. On the counter, there’d be a bag of potatoes and a bottle of olive oil from the Dollar Store. That was dinner, potatoes and lettuce.

“I hear you,” she says. “We had ketchup sandwiches all the time growing up. We didn’t complain. We ate them.”

More here.

at the salton sea

SaltonSeaBLACK-TomMacherJenny Zhang at Harper's Magazine:

The Salton Sea began as an error. At the end of the nineteenth century, developers took interest in the fertile soil found in the Imperial Valley and constructed a series of canals around the ancient dry lakebed, then called the Salton Sink, to divert water for agricultural production. Favoring greed over quality, these shoddily built canals were ill equipped to handle the accumulation of silt. In 1905, the nearby Colorado River breached the canals and for eighteen months filled the thirty-five-mile-wide, ten-mile-long, 235-feet-below-sea-level lakebed with freshwater. The Southern Pacific Railroad company had several lines running through the Imperial Valley and, frustrated by the amount of labor and money lost to rerouting lines onto higher ground, dumped 2,500 cars of rolling stock filled with rock, dirt, and wood into the canals to stop the flooding. Despite being smack-dab in the blistering desert, the high rate of evaporation was offset by runoff from neighboring farmland in the Imperial Valley, and for the next few decades, the water level remained relatively stable.

In the Fifties and Sixties, developers set their sights on transforming the Salton Sea into a destination for urban dwellers from Los Angeles looking for an escape. Resort towns and retirement homes quickly popped up along the shore. Yacht clubs and glittering marinas attracted celebrities like Sonny Bono, Desi Arnaz, and Frank Sinatra, as well as more modest vacationers who came for the golfing, boating, and jet-skiing.

more here.

on strophic prose

Birth_of_the_poetAnthony Madrid at The Paris Review:

Before we begin, I need you to search your heart and evaluate soberly whether you have ever had the experience of sincerely enjoying metrical effects in poetry. If you find in your bosom any doubts regarding this matter, I'm going to ask you to please rise from your seat and locate your nearest exit, keeping in mind that it may be behind you, or opening right now at your feet. You may ignore the smoke. Best wishes. Thank you so much.

Now. The rest of you. We have a great deal to discuss, but I must be brief. I am going to advance a radical proposition.

It can seem, to those of us who teach poetry writing, that the only way to sell young poets on metrical effects is by contagion. One reads aloud some poems where the meter is key—“Easter 1916,” “The Ballad of Sir Patrick Spens”—and one points out, charismatically smacking one’s lips, that the meter is key. Reasons and analogies and explanations are not to the purpose. One points; one smacks one’s lips; dharma does the rest.

more here.

A biography of Diane Arbus

Cover00Prudence Peiffer at Bookforum:

IF EVERY BIOGRAPHY PEDDLES the aura of the unknown with a promise of revelation, Diane Arbus: Portrait of a Photographeracknowledges a darker obfuscation from the start. As his book’s fitting epigraph, Arthur Lubow chooses the artist’s cryptic challenge to anyone attempting to uncover the meaning behind her work: “A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you the less you know.” Arbus wrings out the cliché that a photograph doesn’t lie and rehangs it as a riddle. What is the relationship between a secret and knowledge? How well can we understand someone, even with access to her confidences? And does this information help us see her art better, too? Or, in a Derridean twist, does knowing a secret reveal the very impossibility of its existence in the first place?

Lubow confronts an extreme instance of this problem within the first twenty pages of his seven-hundred-plus tome. He reveals, without fanfare, the ultimate secret of Arbus’s life: According to her psychiatrist, Arbus had a sexual relationship with her older brother, the onetime US poet laureate Howard Nemerov, beginning in childhood, and she last slept with him just a few weeks before her suicide. I was shocked to encounter this claim so early on (and that her therapist would have shared this still feels wrong). But in detonating the taboo at the beginning, Lubow defuses it, too. (No spoiler alert here.) It is not the climax of the book, but one more beveled pane of the window onto its subject.

more here.

Power to… the art of protest

Tim Adams in The Guardian:

Sarah Sze’s intricate installations were described by the New Yorker as “changing the potential for sculpture”. She has been awarded a MacArthur “genius” grant and represented the US at the 2013 Venice Biennale.

SzeWhat’s the history of the piece you have made for this Protest show? I originally made a version of the piece for a show in Philadelphia. Every day, I kept the front page of the New York Times and cut out the pictures and replaced them with pictures that were vast in terms of time and space – there could be an image of the ocean, an image from 500 years ago… I was interested in contrasting what was newsworthy with these timeless images. That piece was then accepted for a triennial in Guangzhou. When we were shipping it we were contacted by the Chinese authorities saying they wanted specific front pages to be removed.

What was the problem? It turned out that every front page I was being asked to remove said something about China; it could be just a phrase or something. So I made a new version for China. The piece was actually on the floor, like it was protecting the floor, spattered with paint and so on. So I took black paint and painted out the parts they wanted redacted and then mentioned the fact in the wall note. For this show, I have done the opposite. I left in all the pieces I had redacted and painted black all the rest of the text.

More here. (Note: Thanks to dear friend Gayil Nalls)

In the Bonobo World, Female Camaraderie Prevails

Natalie Angier in The New York Times:

BONOBOS1-master768The female bonobo apes of the Wamba forest in the Democratic Republic of Congo had just finished breakfast and were preparing for a brief nap in the treetops, bending and crisscrossing leafy branches into comfortable day beds. But one of the females was in estrus, her rump exceptionally pink and swollen, and four males in the group were too excited to sleep. They took turns wildly swinging and jumping around the fertile female and her bunkmates, shaking the branches, appearing to display their erections and perforating the air with high-pitched screams and hoots. Suddenly, three older, high-ranking female bonobos bolted up from below, a furious blur of black fur and swinging limbs and, together with the female in estrus, flew straight for the offending males. The males scattered. The females pursued them. Tree boughs bounced and cracked. Screams on all sides grew deafening. Three of the males escaped, but the females cornered and grabbed the fourth one — the resident alpha male. He was healthy, muscular and about 18 pounds heavier than any of his captors. But no matter.

The females bit into him as he howled and struggled to pull free. Finally, “he dropped from the tree and ran away, and he didn’t appear again for about three weeks,” said Nahoko Tokuyama, of the Primate Research Institute at Kyoto University in Japan, who witnessed the encounter. When the male returned, he kept to himself. Dr. Tokuyama noticed that the tip of one of his toes was gone. “Being hated by females,” she said in an email interview, “is a big matter for male bonobos.” The toe-trimming incident was extreme but not unique. Describing results from their long-term field work in the September issue of Animal Behaviour, Dr. Tokuyama and her colleague Takeshi Furuichi reported that the female bonobos of Wamba often banded together to fend off male aggression, and in patterns that defied the standard primate rule book.

More here.

Two Paradoxes of Public Philosophy

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

Socrates_teaching_Perikles-Nicolas_Guibal-IMG_5308These days there is a nearly constant clamor among academic philosophers for more public philosophy. We've already expressed puzzlement about what public philosophy is and what public philosophers are trying to achieve. It's likely that our puzzlement has been dismissed among public philosophy enthusiasts as nothing more than the imposition of the norms of academic philosophy on to an alternative vision of philosophical activity. Clarity about public philosophy is apparently not on the public philosopher's agenda. Perhaps the idea is that we can find out what public philosophy is only by publicly philosophizing? Fair enough. But there's still a question about how to we are to publicly philosophize. What are we to begin doing that we're not already doing? Presumably, public philosophy is in part the project of bringing philosophical insight into public discussion. How can this be practically pursued? Two related paradoxes arise.

To begin, consider the fact that so much of what is called public philosophy is politically oriented. Some candidate's pronouncements may come under philosophical scrutiny, a conceptual argument for one policy or another gets given, problematic assumptions are laid bare, hidden premises are challenged, or certain norms are critiqued along some theoretical line or another. That's the philosophical part, and it is nothing new; it is the kind of thing has been done by academic philosophers since the inception of academic philosophy. The distinctively public component emerges as the commitment to philosophizing about public matters in a mode that is accessible to the public itself rather than only to academic philosophers. Public philosophy, then, is philosophy about social and political matters that is for public consumption. Put otherwise, public philosophy is political philosophy intended for uptake by the public.

So far, so good. But notice that the need for philosophical examination, critique, and elucidation is most pronounced when matters are deeply conflicted. Philosophy does its work when intellectual materials stand in need of clarification, when disagreements prevail and there is no clear or obvious way of finding a resolution. In this way, philosophy is driven by conflicts that appear to be intractable. It is the controlled attempt to rationally address conflicts that look like impasses. And the deeper the conflict, the more urgent the need for philosophers to go to work.

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