It’s april 2016 and I’m unemployed again. When lobster fishers launch their boats in the spring, we contract professors drift into harbour, mooring to their vacated spots on the unemployment lists.
But it’s worse this season. The college where I have been teaching for two years, filling in for professors on leave, doesn’t need to rehire me. Soon my unemployment benefits will run out, and I’ll untie again, sail off. It’ll be my fourth move in three years. And moving is a lot of work, even if, like me, you live in a cheap one-bedroom apartment, and you sleep on an air mattress (and have another air mattress as a “couch”) and you don’t bother unpacking anymore, and you only own a few pieces of disintegrating, assemble-it-yourself furniture. My attachments to people, places and things are disintegrating too, but I don’t have time to worry about that. I’m thirty-six, and need a job.
But while I make my living as an English professor, that job stems from my career as a poet, without which I wouldn’t have earned my degrees or found teaching jobs. Many poets and other creative writers are in the same situation, struggling to make money in the academy. For those in the publishing industry, the situation is worse.
Few poets, however, write honestly about their economic situation. Indeed, it’s a challenge to find any poet willing to come clean about money: wanting it, enjoying it, needing it, or lacking it—even though this must necessarily be our condition.
For nearly 100 years, scientists have dreamed of turning the lightest of all the elements, hydrogen, into a metal.
Now, in a stunning act of modern-day alchemy, scientists at Harvard University have finally succeeded in creating a tiny amount of what is the rarest, and possibly most valuable, material on the planet, they reported in the journal Science.
For metallic hydrogen could theoretically revolutionise technology, enabling the creation of super-fast computers, high-speed levitating trains and ultra-efficient vehicles and dramatically improving almost anything involving electricity.
And it could also allow humanity to explore outer space as never before.
But the prospect of this bright future could be at risk if the scientists’ next step – to establish whether the metal is stable at normal pressures and temperatures – fails to go as hoped.
Professor Isaac Silvera, who made the breakthrough with Dr Ranga Dias, said: “This is the holy grail of high-pressure physics.
“It's the first-ever sample of metallic hydrogen on Earth, so when you're looking at it, you're looking at something that’s never existed before.”
Let’s say you recently marched with 3.2 million people, celebrated a 108-year wait for a World Series, or raved deep into the night. The contagious euphoria you felt has a name: “collective effervescence,” coined a century ago by the French sociologist Émile Durkheim. It’s that glowy, giddy feeling where your sense of self slackens, yielding to a connection with your fellow, synchronized humans.
In an instance of sublime timing, I caught SUNY Buffalo psychologist Shira Gabriel’s presentation about collective effervescence at the the Society for Personality and Social Psychology conference on Saturday. According to her forthcoming research, these effervescent experiences fill the human need for belonging in a way that most social psychology research — so long preoccupied with couples, families, and small groups — has tended to overlook. It underscores how customs as ancient as pilgrimages and feast days, and modern as protests and pro sports, help people to lead happier, connected, and more personally meaningful lives.
Gabriel, who was initiated into effervescence by following Phish during her grad-school years, said it’s the sort of thing most people experience without ever considering. Think about why people go to concerts, for instance: The sound is loud, the drinks expensive, the people sweaty, and you can hear the same songs at home. “What is so positive about being in the spot where the music is made?” she said in an interview. While you don’t say to yourself that you’re going to the show to fulfill your need for collective effervescence, the need is being met.
Suzanne O’Sullivan is a neurologist specializing in epilepsy who practices in London. Many of her patients suffer from so-called conversion disorders: somatic symptoms caused by psychological distress that defy ready diagnosis by medical tests or physical examination. “They are medical disorders like no others,” O’Sullivan writes. “They obey no rules. They can affect any part of the body…. Almost any symptom we can imagine can become real when we are in distress.”
Physicians who practice family medicine, pediatrics, or internal medicine learn that a substantial proportion of people seeking care have inexplicable complaints. Some surveys indicate that at least a quarter of such patients report symptoms that appear to have no physical basis, and that one in ten continues to believe that he has a terminal disease even after the doctor has found him to be healthy.1
Understandably, because the symptoms obscure the psychological genesis, patients seek a physical disorder to explain their condition, and turn to doctors like O’Sullivan to provide a diagnosis.
Explorers have long filled in our understanding of the world, using and then discarding the sexton, the compass, MapQuest. “The project of mapping the Earth properly is to some extent complete,” Hessler says. But while there are no longer dragons fleshing out far-flung places, a surprising number of spaces are still uncharted—and the locations we’ve discovered to explore have only expanded. “Where we were just trying to accurately map terrestrial space,” Hessler says, we’ve moved into a “metaphor for how we live. We’re mapping things that don’t have a physical existence, like internet data and the neural connections in our heads.”
From mapping the dark between stars to the patterns of disease outbreaks, who is making maps today, and what they’re used for, says a lot about the modern world. “Now anything can be mapped,” says Hessler. “It’s the Wild West. We are in the great age of cartography, and we’re still just finding out what its powers are.”
The Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station sits on the Earth’s axis, at an altitude just above 9,000 feet, smack in the world’s largest, coldest desert, where a small settlement of metal shipping containers takes shape in rows on a windblown sheet of continental ice. Heavy equipment beeps in the polar air. In these harsh conditions, Naoko Kurahashi Neilson has been trying to map black holes.
In his cell, between January and March 1897, in preparation for his release from Reading jail in April, Oscar Wilde began to write an extraordinary letter. He wanted to address his notorious relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas, the fin-de-siècle romance that had swiftly become a fatal tragedy. “Bosie” had remained aloof from his former lover throughout the two years of Wilde’s sentence (“with hard labour”), and the 80 pages of manuscript written on 20 folios of thin blue prison paper became Wilde’s tormented bid for some kind of rapprochement. What began as an act of would-be reconciliation blossomed into an excruciating, and utterly compelling, chapter of autobiography, an aesthetic apologia (Epistola: In Carcere et Vinculis – “Letter: from Prison and in Chains”) , and finally a tour de force of prose by a late-Victorian writer of genius.
…“I now see that Sorrow is at once the type and test of all great Art. What the artist is always looking for is that mode of existence in which soul and body are one and indivisible: in which the outward is expressive of the inward: in which Form reveals…” “To the artist, expression is the only mode under which he can conceive life at all. To him what is dumb is dead. But to Christ it was not so…
Most people say “I’m sorry” many times a day for a host of trivial affronts – accidentally bumping into someone or failing to hold open a door. These apologies are easy and usually readily accepted, often with a response like, “No problem.” But when “I’m sorry” are the words needed to right truly hurtful words, acts or inaction, they can be the hardest ones to utter. And even when an apology is offered with the best of intentions, it can be seriously undermined by the way in which it is worded. Instead of eradicating the emotional pain the affront caused, a poorly worded apology can result in lasting anger and antagonism, and undermine an important relationship. I admit to a lifetime of challenges when it comes to apologizing, especially when I thought I was right or misunderstood or that the offended party was being overly sensitive. But I recently discovered that the need for an apology is less about me than the person who, for whatever reason, is offended by something I said or did or failed to do, regardless of my intentions. I also learned that a sincere apology can be powerful medicine with surprising value for the giver as well as the recipient.
In the very first chapter of her new book, “Why Won’t You Apologize?,” Dr. Lerner points out that apologies followed by rationalizations are “never satisfying” and can even be harmful. “When ‘but’ is tagged on to an apology,” she wrote, it’s an excuse that counters the sincerity of the original message. The best apologies are short and don’t include explanations that can undo them. Nor should a request for forgiveness be part of an apology. The offended party may accept a sincere apology but still be unready to forgive the transgression. Forgiveness, should it come, may depend on a demonstration going forward that the offense will not be repeated. “It’s not our place to tell anyone to forgive or not to forgive,” Dr. Lerner said in an interview. She disputes popular thinking that failing to forgive is bad for one’s health and can lead to a life mired in bitterness and hate.
It is a tingling sense of presence in the room, when I finally press play on the generated audio file, and hear my trained deep-learning neural net try to formulate new and never before spoken sentences in a language where the last fluent speaker passed away in 2003. When Edison invented the phonograph, it was soon conceived as a means not primarily to play music, but to hear voices of dead persons. The voices recorded on the phonograph were experienced as sounds without bodies, as spirits in space. Listening intensely to the sound, at first I can hear only static noise, but deep inside it various spectral shapes and pulses are starting to make themselves present. I think this is what it must have felt like for Edison when he played his first ghost-like recording of a human voice.
Two early versions of experiment:
Recently there have been big breakthroughs in the field of artificial intelligence and machine learning. Over a period of just a couple of years, it has found new and novel uses in everything from self-driving cars and medical image processing to automatic translation algorithms, including speech recognition and natural language processing. Companies such as Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Microsoft and the Chinese firm Baidu are currently competing in hunting down and clearing out whole computer science departments at universities around the globe, in order to employ the best heads in the field.
One of the technologies driving this revolution goes by names such as deep learning and deep neural networks. In short, the form of computing that is inspired by the brain and its billions of neurons working in parallel to interpret and act in accordance with its surroundings. What has made this old idea of neural networks make such a comeback is the recent availability of big data – large data sets used in the training of the networks, and also the speed of parallel processing in modern GPU chipsets.
As an artist and electronic musician with a keen interest in language and computing, I came across an article published fall 2016, where a group of Google scientists had turned towards the field of audio to try to improve artificial speech. What triggered my imagination was not the fact that they had succeeded in making computer speech sounding much more natural, but the weird by-products of trying the technology out on musical material and other sounds. I had to try this out myself and I fearlessly installed the necessary software on one of Google's cloud-based computing engines to run the tests. My first experiments were with a collection of water-insect field recordings, and also with my own music to see if it could learn to "sound" like tracks of my musical projects phonophani or alog (possibly putting me out of work in the process!).
Kellyanne Conway's January 22 appearance on Meet the Press (transcript) has already attracted a good deal of attention, given her use of the seemingly Orwellian expression ‘alternative facts.' The idiom serves to confirm the view many take of the Trump administration's approach to honest deliberation. In light of the fake news and post-truth politics issues and the fact that the Trump administration has required many agencies to close down their communications with the public, Conway's line is an easy fit with a broad and disconcerting narrative of willful irrationalism and bold abuse of power. In many ways, we are sympathetic with this interpretation of Conway's term; as she deployed it, it indeed sounded as the Orwellian assertion our-say-so-trumps-is-so. However, there is an interpretation of Conway's turn of phrase and her broader point that, though still disappointing, is considerably less Orwellian. And it occasions a crucial lesson about the place of liberal education in a democratic society.
First, consider the more charitable interpretation of Conway's term. In both cases where Conway uses the expression alternative facts, she is talking about how the evidence relevant for settling a question is often more complicated than it may at first seem. In the two cases where she appeals to ‘alternative facts,' the point at issue is whether Sean Spicer's claim at his January 21 Press Conference, "That was the largest audience to witness an inauguration, period," was accurate. Chuck Todd's challenge was that Spicer's claim flew in the face of widespread photographic evidence that showed clearly that the crowd at Trump's inauguration was smaller than the crowd at Obama's '09 inauguration. Yet Spicer claimed that the size of the crowd at the mall belied a number of things about how the crowd was handled for the inauguration; moreover, his statement precisely was that the event was witnessed by more people – which included television and live-streaming. So, as the reasoning went, the photographic evidence doesn't seal the deal, because none of those folks watching Fox News or streaming the event on Breitbart were in the frame.
"Spend five minutes looking at some beautiful scene. Realize you do not have to buy beauty to possess it." So wrote author and actress Margery Wilson in her popular 1942 self-help book for women. This is startling advice, coming up as #5 on her list of suggestions, after "Keep your voice soft, lilting, and uncomplaining." It's startling because it says something simple and real. And, I think, it teaches us something important about the mind.
I like to think of my mind as a room I live in. I can walk around all day, moving from corner to corner. I can peer out the windows or place an object on the table for examination. Life in the room is illuminated by light coming in through the windows—direct impressions of the outside world—but it is also tinted by the tone of the wallpaper. This wallpaper is made up of the images and sounds in the background of my thoughts, the things that are stuck in my head. We all have mental wallpaper, and this half-conscious backdrop drastically colors our experience of the world. Especially now, when we're bombarded with lies and prejudice, ugliness can linger there. But we can change the paper. We can shape what happens in the background of our minds.
When I was in college, I took a poetry seminar with a kindly professor who thumped his foot rhythmically on the floor all through class. One day, the professor thumped his foot and told us about mental wallpaper. It was my first introduction to the idea: as you pass through life, visions and sounds are plastered up against your mind's walls. Sometimes a song gets stuck in your head, sometimes an image from the news plays back all day, and sometimes it can be a sentence or a headline. But these sounds and images are quiet, humming behind your noisy thoughts, and you can go through your day or your whole life barely noticing them.
I knew what he meant. I hadn't started thinking of my mind as a room yet, but I knew how the things I watched, read, and saw could become the background of my mind, looming behind my passing thoughts.
As an American – as a Muslim American – I want our country to be safe. I also want our country to live up to its values. A sweeping ban on the entry of Muslims into our country does not make us secure, and contradicts the abiding aspirations of our republic.
Of course, America should be kept safe from terrorism. I grew up in Karachi: I have directly witnessed the destruction inflicted by terrorists who justify their actions in the name of Islam. I know the innocents they have assassinated, including friends of mine, the families wrecked. I have seen the progress of an entire society hampered by a tiny but organized, violent, and fanatical minority.
But though we need vigorous policies to counter Islamist terrorists, these policies should not target the entire populations of entire countries. Such policies are not only ineffective, they are counterproductive and feed the falsehoods that terrorists peddle. Terrorists claim that Islam and the West are inherently at odds, and that there can be no peace between Muslims and non-Muslims. Peaceful and prosperous Muslim communities in the West are the clearest refutation of this false propaganda.
Yet the strongest reason to be critical of the Muslim Ban is not because it plays into the hands of the terrorists. The fact is that such policies are contrary to the best ideals of our American republic. Terrorists cannot destroy our republic, but they won't need to if we diverge from our principles. We do not impose religious tests in the United States of America. We do not discriminate against people on the basis of their background, their national origin, their ethnicity, their sexual orientation, their gender, or anything else. We do not subscribe to the notion of collective guilt: we do not punish innocent individuals for the sins or crimes of others. We judge individuals on their merits, and afford all the opportunity to pursue their dreams.
Great outdoor action from Amsterdam. This shadow art was made for World Refugee Day on June 20, 2013, and was shown at various locations in the city.
The idea behind the campaign is about invisibility of refugees. We don’t know their faces and their background. What we do know is that they need help.
The copy that was placed next to the visual: “There are over 40 million lives hidden today, living as shadows suppressed by war and violence. We often don’t know about them. But they deserve to be seen. And helped. Support another family through Stichting Vluchteling – The Dutch Refugee Foundation”.
For years now, I have been dreaming this dream that our national park rangers would rise up and lead a coup.
Whenever I used to return to the US from Japan or Hong Kong -it was always so appalling flying into LAX (a truly banana republic experience), our infrastructure seemed as shabby as our healthcare was inhumane. Things felt incredibly chaotic and wild west–in many ways, quite uncivilized. On the few occasions, however, when I managed to find myself in a national park, everything began to look up. Suddenly things ran smoothly. There were trams to get people from point a to point b; rooms for all budgets, great cafeteria food often with local ingredients– and everything felt somehow rational. Kind of like Europe, I always thought.
We have to thank the rangers for this. For they are an amazing group of people. Committed ecologists and educators, so many of them even have a sense of humor. Able to live off grid, I think they are totally bad ass! How many times have I thought over the years that if only the United States was run like our national parks we wouldn't be nearly as much trouble.
One of the things I love best about them is they don't negotiate when it comes to the environment. The parks are not about "consumer choice." You have to keep things green–or else. There is no blaming Republicans or Liberals, no discussion of faith when it comes to the environment, climate "believers" or not, you have to live by the rules of the parks. Yep, that means no plastic water bottles are sold. Hallelujah, and is it really that hard?
Given my great fondness for them, I took more than a little delight to see them running rogue last week with NASA.
As I wrote in a post back in June, reporting bias is a phenomenon that significantly detracts from the efficacy of potential predictive policing measures. Simply put, if underserved communities don’t trust the police and are less likely to report crime as a result, the resulting data is incomplete, inaccurate, and therefore useless when considering measures such as hotspot analysis or setting new patrol routes. This month, I’d like to explore a particular reason why underreporting of crime might occur, with a particular focus on socioeconomic factors that drive who can or is willing to call 911.
It’s easy to make two major assumptions about 911. First, that 911 services are free, or at least are public services paid for by taxpayer money. And second, that they are consistent across the nation. After all, there’s a whole alphabet soup of government agencies that establish standards and rules for dialing 911, among them the Federal Communications Commission and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Consider also organizations such as the National Emergency Number Association and any number of police, fire, and emergency medical service professional organizations to increase oversight and regulation of the service.
The first assumption is proven false by the fact that most states charge a 911 service fee. In theory, fees such as these feed into a Universal Service Fund intended to normalize 911 service across a coverage area, thereby reducing socioeconomic effects. However, the FCC collects this fee from mobile service providers, and while the “FCC does not require this charge to be passed on to you… service providers are allowed to do so.” That’s just for standard 911 calls. For Enhanced 911 (E911) calls, which provide latitude and longitude data for callers using cell phones instead of land lines, service providers may charge a fee as well. E911 calls are especially important given that most 911 calls today are made from mobile phones, not land lines, and without E911, it’s difficult for first responders to accurately locate callers. Let me add onto that.
Words are routinely abused by those in power to manipulate us but we should be most vigilant when we encounter a new class of "plastic words". What are these plastic words? In 1988, the German linguist Uwe Pörksen published his landmark book "Plastikwörter:Die Sprache einer internationalen Diktatur" (literal translation into English: "Plastic words: The language of an international dictatorship") in which he describes the emergence and steady expansion during the latter half of the 20th century of selected words that are incredibly malleable yet empty when it comes to their actual meaning. Plastic words have surreptitiously seeped into our everyday language and dictate how we think. They have been imported from the languages of science, technology and mathematics, and thus appear to be imbued with their authority. When used in a scientific or technological context, these words are characterized by precise and narrow definitions, however this precision and definability is lost once they become widely used. Pörksen's use of "plastic" refers to the pliability of how these words can be used and abused but he also points out their similarity to plastic lego bricks which act as modular elements to construct larger composites. The German language makes it very easy to create new composite words by combining two words but analogous composites can be created in English by stringing together multiple words. This is especially important for one of Pörksen's key characteristics of plastic words: they have become part of an international vocabulary with cognate words in numerous languages.
Here are some examples of "plastic words"(German originals are listed in parentheses next to the English translations) – see if you recognize them and if you can give a precise definition of what they mean:
Over the past several months I've been writing about creativity in the arts, a project motivated by skepticism among philosophers that winemaking could legitimately be considered an art form. (See Part 1, and here, here, and here)
As Burham and Skilleas write on the decisions made in the vineyard and winery:
These decisions are intentions certainly and wine is also a product of human artifice. However, it is not intention in the same sense as a painter might have when he approaches a blank canvas. Vintner's decisions have only a very tenuous connection with expression in the arts which is typically expressions of aesthetic intention, feeling, and the like…Wine is not as malleable to intention as paint and the most important factor beyond the vintner's control is the weather. Try as they might few vintners can remove the sensory impact of the vintage. (The Aesthetics of Wine, p. 99-100)
Burnham and Skilleas seem to think that although winemakers have intentions they are not about aesthetics. This is a questionable assertion. There are countless decisions made by winemakers and their teams in the vineyard and winery that influence the intensity, harmony, finesse, and elegance of the final product and are intended to do so.
Burham and Skilleas go on to insist that "a vintner is simply not to be understood on the model of Kantian or Romantic aesthetics of fine art for whom originality or creativity are absolutely central features." Again, this is a questionable assertion, although it may be true of commodity wines. As James Frey, proprietor of Tristaetum Winery in Oregon's Willamette Valley and an accomplished artist as well as winemaker, told me in an interview: "Originality matters a great deal. No winemaker wants to hear that his wines taste like those of the winery down the street." Originality and creativity are central concerns of at least those winemakers for whom quality is the primary focus.