The politics of outrage, and the crisis of free speech on campus

Ira Wells in the Literary Review of Canada:

Wells-illo-400x304Among those invested in the notion that higher education is currently collapsing before our eyes, fewer pieces of evidence are proffered more frequently (or more uncritically) than the modern university’s supposed tendency to nurture and promote “offence taking” as a default attitude toward the world. Our universities, we are told, have discarded their traditional raisonin order to become incubators of moral outrage. Administrators, having abandoned time-honoured liberal arts ideals, today quiver to the cheap thrill of indignation; professors, having given up on Shakespeare and the “great books,” now indoctrinate students in radical Marxist ideology and seek to cultivate a generation of “social justice warriors.” Our campuses have become closed, ideologically insular places that are hostile to the freedom of speech and intolerant of dissent.

This opinion—broadcast by bilious media personalities who have never listened in on a faculty meeting, have no knowledge of universities’ academic priorities and have not set foot in an undergraduate lecture since Trudeau père occupied 24 Sussex—is, unsurprisingly, a grotesque parody of the complex, often internally conflicted reality of modern institutions of higher learning.

Yet this view, however exaggerated, is not entirely baseless. An increasingly sensitive and fine-grained vocabulary for registering and opposing forms of sexism, racism, ableism and religious intolerance has undeniably been developing within higher education.

More here.

Evolution Is Slower Than It Looks and Faster Than You Think

Carrie Arnold in Wired:

EvoHorse_1K-1In the 1950s, the Finnish biologist Björn Kurtén noticed something unusual in the fossilized horses he was studying. When he compared the shapes of the bones of species separated by only a few generations, he could detect lots of small but significant changes. Horse species separated by millions of years, however, showed far fewer differences in their morphology. Subsequent studies over the next half century found similar effects—organisms appeared to evolve more quickly when biologists tracked them over shorter timescales.

Then, in the mid-2000s, Simon Ho, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Sydney, encountered a similar phenomenon in the genomes he was analyzing. When he calculated how quickly DNA mutations accumulated in birds and primates over just a few thousand years, Ho found the genomes chock-full of small mutations. This indicated a briskly ticking evolutionary clock. But when he zoomed out and compared DNA sequences separated by millions of years, he found something very different. The evolutionary clock had slowed to a crawl.

Baffled by his results, Ho set to work trying to figure out what was going on. He stumbled upon Kurtén’s 1959 work and realized that the differences in rates of physical change Kurtén saw also appeared in genetic sequences.

More here.

Nate Silver says media assumptions, not data, led to surprise over 2016 election results

Christina Pazzanese in the Harvard Gazette:

ScreenHunter_2656 Mar. 31 19.58GAZETTE: At last year’s conference here, you were still skeptical of Trump’s viability as the Republican Party nominee, which was fairly late. On election night, your site had Hillary’s chances at 71 percent; almost everyone else had her up by even more. Why do you think Trump’s victory blindsided so many?

SILVER: I think people shouldn’t have been so surprised. Clinton was the favorite, but the polls showed, in our view, particularly at the end, a highly competitive race in the Electoral College. We had him with a 30 percent chance, and that’s a pretty likely occurrence. Why did people think it was much less than that? I think there are a few things. One is that I don’t think people have a good intuitive sense for how to translate polls to probabilities. In theory, that’s the benefit of a model. But I think people thought “Well, Clinton’s ahead in most of the polls in most states, and I remember that seems similar to Obama four years ago, and therefore I’m very confident that she’ll win.” It’s ad hoc and not really very rigorous, that thought process.

The second part is that there is a certain amount of groupthink. People looking at the polls are mostly in newsrooms in Washington and Boston and New York. These are liberal cities, and so people tend to see evidence (in our view, it was kind of conflicting polling data) as pointing toward a certain thing.

More here.

Friday Poem

—The Chinese micro-carver Chen Zhongen
can inscribe poems on a single strand of hair
.
The Stylist

I asked for a headful of sonnets
(Petrarchan) from scalp to split end.
Short-haired one, said he,
the most I can do for you
is a crop of haiku.

A bit miffed, I looked round the room
at enormous close-ups of women
with sestinas twirled through their ringlets,
thousands of Möbius strips
curled round recidivist words.

A man with a brylled-black mullet
sported tercets over his ears,
and a thicket of octets ending in knots:
floccinaucinihilipilification,
sesquipedalian,
hyperfecund,
the days of the week in Old Norse.

Poems with upbeat conclusions
on the flick-ups of nymphet models.
Bawdy love-lyrics from the 1700s
hidden inside dense dark shag perms,
and rhyming couplets at the outer tips
of a blonde boy’s barely-there eyebrows.

Not fair, I thought; oh, to be Rapunzel
with space for the lost Latin epics
of Valerius Flaccus cascading
down past my backside.

But no; I got Ezra Pound’s petals
above my wet and blackening brow.
Some highlights from Japanese wisdom.
And one of the stylist’s own:
What hard work this is,
blinded by flurries of snow:
your psoriasis.

.
by Mary O'Donoghue
from: Among These Winters
Dedalus Press, Dublin, 2007

Reza Aslan: Scholar or retailer of import goods?

170223082505-reza-aslan-believer-reza-closeup-paint-large-169Michael Altman at The Immanent Frame:

Aslan’s “all religion is the same and it’s all about being a good person” claims would be fine if he positioned himself as a spiritual guide or religious teacher, but Aslan insists that he is a scholar of religion. The opening credits say so four times. But such claims are not scholarship. In his “Theses on Method,” scholar of religion Bruce Lincoln summed up the religious scholar’s job well:

When one permits those whom one studies to define the terms in which they will be understood, suspends one’s interest in the temporal and contingent, or fails to distinguish between “truths”, “truth-claims”, and “regimes of truth”, one has ceased to function as historian or scholar. In that moment, a variety of roles are available: some perfectly respectable (amanuensis, collector, friend and advocate), and some less appealing (cheerleader, voyeur, retailer of import goods). None, however, should be confused with scholarship.

Aslan permits the reforming Aghori to define their own terms, his “all religions are the same” approach ignores the temporal and contingent, and so he has ceased to function as a scholar. It’s up to viewers to decide which of the other roles suites him best. Moreover, these same things that get in the way of his role as scholar are also the cause of his troubles with his Hindu critics. By saying that he knows what Hinduism (and religion) is really about he abnegates his role as scholar and offends Hindus who have their own ideas about Hinduism’s truths.

more here.

The Unlikely Rise of an Alt-Right Hero

44978e11f1f72b0f4d82d395a393f5a2468b60a1Clio Chang at The New Republic:

In a video posted on Facebook on March 27 by Kyle Chapman, the camera pans across what can only be described as a DIY armory: baseball helmet, ski goggles, shin guards, face mask, wooden shield, flag pole. “The benefit of the baseball helmet is that you have holes where the ears are,” Chapman tells his viewers. “This allows you to hear what’s going on around you.” The helmet is emblazoned with a decal reading molon labe (“come and take them”), the Second Amendment rallying cry borrowed from ancient Sparta. Chapman also recommends going to Home Depot, where one can find a wooden table top for just $25 to fashion into a homemade buckler.

Chapman made the video in response to a barrage of inquiries into his riot gear, which was on full display when he fought anti-fascist protesters (sometimes collectively referred to as Antifa) at the University of California, Berkeley, in early March. Before then, he had been a relative unknown. A 41-year-old commercial diver living in the Bay Area, Chapman told the New Republic that he “doesn’t really care for social media or the internet.” But on March 4, a video of Chapman breaking a wooden sign post over the head of an Antifa activist went viral, quickly launching him to fame as the subject of a new alt-right meme: “Based Stickman.”

more here.

on bosch and bruegel

5ccee3f6-1470-11e7-95d0-4f54ce31baaeGabriel Josipovici at the Times Literary Supplement:

A new book by Joseph Koerner is always an event. Here, as usual, he seems to have read everything and to have thought about everything connected with his chosen subject, the two early modern Netherlands painters Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Bruegel the Elder, so similar in many ways and yet so different: their lives and their work; the complex history of the Netherlands and Europe in the sixteenth century; the seismic cultural shifts occurring at the time; the commissioning and afterlife of individual paintings; the way they lay on the paint and the way they intend their work to be seen and how it is seen now – the Boschs mainly in the Prado, the Bruegels mainly in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. He feels it is as important to note how visitors respond to their work in these galleries as it is to understand the iconography they are using (visitors crowd excitedly round Bosch, they smile happily to themselves as they view Bruegel).

But it is his ability to look and to find words for what he is looking at that sets him in the very front rank of art historians. Here he is looking at Bosch’s great drawing of the Tree-Man (probably, he thinks, a version of the mysterious Tree-Man in the “Garden of Earthly Delights”, made for a collector after the painting) on a sheet now in the Albertina in Vienna:

Invention demands a capacity of mind. But as the medium of drawing lays it bare, it happens in the bodily and material activity of painting. Bosch creates his lines out of bistre, a brown pigment produced by boiling the soot of wood [there is much here about the way the artist plays with his name, “forest”].

more here.

Do We Owe Our Large Primate Brains to a Passion for Fruit?

Bret Stetka in Scientific American:

FruitsCompared with other mammals, and along with those of a few other notably bright creatures—dolphins, whales and elephants among them—the brain to body-size ratios of monkeys, apes and humans are among the highest. For decades the prevailing evolutionary explanation for this was increasing social complexity. The so-called “social brain hypothesis” holds that the pressures and nuances of interacting and functioning within a group gradually boosted brain size. Yet new research suggests otherwise. A study conducted by a team of New York University anthropologists, and published Monday in Nature Ecology & Evolution, reports diet was in all likelihood much more instrumental in driving primate brain evolution. In particular, it appears that we and our primate cousins may owe our big brains to eating fruit. Much of the research exploring the social hypothesis has rendered inconsistent results. And as many in the field have noted, a number of oft-cited studies in support of the theory suffer from small sample sizes and flawed design, including out-of-date species classification. The new work is based on a primate sample more than three times larger than that used in prior studies, and one that used a more accurate evolutionary family tree.

In over 140 primate species, the study authors compared brain size with the consumption of fruit, leaves and meat. They also compared it with group size, social organization and mating systems. By looking at factors such as whether or not a particular primate group prefers solitary to pair living or whether they are monogamous, the researchers figured they should theoretically be able to determine if social factors contributed to the evolution of larger brains. And it appears they could not. Dietary preferences—especially fruit consumption—seems to have been much more influential. The researchers found that fruit-eating species, or frugivores, have significantly larger brains than both omnivores and “foliovores,” those that prefer eating leaves. “These findings call into question the current emphasis on the social brain hypothesis, which suggests larger brains are associated with increased social complexity,” explains Alex DeCasien, a doctoral candidate in anthropology and lead author of the study. “Instead, our results resurrect older ideas about the evolutionary relationship between foraging complexity and brain size.”

More here.

Mini reproductive system on a chip mimics human menstrual cycle

Sara Reardon in Nature:

Mini-organs-uterus2In the quest to study human reproduction, scientists have built a rudimentary model of the female system in the lab. Every 28 days, the 'ovary', cultured on a small plastic chip, releases an egg and starts producing hormones to prepare for pregnancy. The hormones travel through a series of tiny channels that mimic Fallopian tubes and into a uterus-like chamber made of human tissue. The system, described in a study1 published on 28 March in Nature Communications, is the latest in a series of organs-on-chips — miniature devices seeded with human tissues and cells that are engineered to model biological functions. Researchers hope that the synthetic reproductive system will provide another avenue for studying diseases such as cervical cancer, and allow them to test new contraceptives and fertility treatments before being used in people. There is no good animal model for the 28-day human reproductive cycle, says Teresa Woodruff, a reproductive scientist at Northwestern University in Chicago, Illinois, and a co-author of the study. The artificial system fills an “urgent unmet need for us”, she says.

All together now

Woodruff and her colleagues named their system Evatar — a portmanteau of Eve and avatar. It contains five ‘organs’ linked together by a blood-like liquid carrying hormones, cell signalling molecules and drugs. The Fallopian tubes, uterus and cervix are made from human tissues obtained from women undergoing hysterectomies. The ovaries, however, are from mouse tissue, because healthy ovaries are rarely removed from women. Tissue for the fifth ‘organ’, the liver, which metabolizes drugs, comes from humans.

More here.

How philosophy came to disdain the wisdom of oral cultures

Justin E. H. Smith in Aeon:

Idea_Sized-Ahron-de-Leeuw-3224207371_bde659342e_oAs the theorist Walter J Ong pointed out in Orality and Literacy: Technologizing the Word (1982), it is difficult, perhaps even impossible, now to imagine how differently language would have been experienced in a culture of ‘primary orality’. There would be nowhere to ‘look up a word’, no authoritative source telling us the shape the word ‘actually’ takes. There would be no way to affirm the word’s existence at all except by speaking it – and this necessary condition of survival is important for understanding the relatively repetitive nature of epic poetry. Say it over and over again, or it will slip away. In the absence of fixed, textual anchors for words, there would be a sharp sense that language is charged with power, almost magic: the idea that words, when spoken, can bring about new states of affairs in the world. They do not so much describe, as invoke.

As a consequence of the development of writing, first in the ancient Near East and soon after in Greece, old habits of thought began to die out, and certain other, previously latent, mental faculties began to express themselves. Words were now anchored and, though spellings could change from one generation to another, or one region to another, there were now physical traces that endured, which could be transmitted, consulted and pointed to in settling questions about the use or authority of spoken language.

Writing rapidly turned customs into laws, agreements into contracts, genealogical lore into history.

More here.

A Burning Collection: Norman Rush reviews a book of essays from Teju Cole

Norman Rush in the New York Review of Books:

ScreenHunter_2655 Mar. 30 20.39Teju Cole is a kind of realm. He has written three books—two exceptional novels and the volume of essays to be considered here—as well as many uncollected essays, interviews, newspaper columns, and a vast online oeuvre made up of skeins of tweets on fixed themes, faits divers, e-mail arguments, captioned Instagrams, mixed media exercises, and rants. At the moment he is credited with more than 13,000 tweets, 263,000 Twitter followers, 1,035 photos, and around 22,000 fans who officially like his Facebook page. Even in a time when many writers are enlarging their literary footprints by means of the Internet, he is a prodigy.

There is a strong interconnectedness between the different parts of his work. Cole’s personal story, sometimes given straight, sometimes fictionalized, pervades. The bicultural Teju Cole was born in the US in 1975, raised in Nigeria until his seventeenth year, brought back to America where he first studied art and attended medical school, and then went abroad to study African art history; he later studied Northern Renaissance art at Columbia. His initial novels brought him a storm of prizes and attention. He is currently a writer in residence at Bard College and the photography critic for The New York Times Magazine and is himself an exhibiting photographer. Cole has said in an interview that the essays on photography in this collection, which also collects many of his writings on literature, travel, politics, and art, are the most important of his writings.

Cole is very conscious of the difference between what one might think of as books aimed at a presumed posterity and his online works, aimed at a real-time and frequently interactive fandom.

More here.

“Hi-C”: The Game-Changing Technique That Cracked the Zika-Mosquito Genome

Ed Yong in The Atlantic:

Lead_960Ten years ago, a team of scientists published the first genome of Aedes aegypti­—the infamous mosquito that spreads Zika, dengue fever, and yellow fever. It was a valiant effort, but also a complete mess. Rather than tidily bundled in the insect’s three pairs of chromosomes, its DNA was scattered among 36,000 small fragments, many of which were riddled with gaps and errors. But last week, a team of scientists led by Erez Lieberman Aiden at the Baylor College of Medicine announced that they had finally knitted those pieces into a coherent whole—a victory that will undoubtedly be helpful to scientists who study Aedes and the diseases it carries.

This milestone is about more than mosquitoes. The team succeeded by using a technique called Hi-C, which allows scientists to assemble an organism’s genome quickly, cheaply, and accurately. To prove that point, the team used Hi-C to piece together a human genome from scratch for just $10,000; by contrast, the original Human Genome Project took $4 billion to accomplish the same feat. “It’s very clear that this is the way that you want to be doing it,” says Olga Dudchenko, who was part of Aiden’s team. “At least in the foreseeable future, there’s no method that can compete,” adds her colleague Sanjit Singh Batra.

More here.

Bad Hombres

Richard King reviews three books on populism in the Sydney Review of Books:

What-is-Populism-Jan-Werner-Müller-book-coverSo, it’s happened. Donald J. Trump, the guy hardly anyone thought could win the Republican nomination, and, having won the Republican nomination, hardly anyone thought could become US President, is US President. It still doesn’t feel entirely real, and the sense that we’re living in an alternative present, a counterfactual come to life – more Back to the Future Part II, at the moment, than It Can’t Happen Here or The Plot Against America – has yet to fully dissipate. But dissipate it will, must. The Cheeto Jesus is in da House. Hair Force One has landed.

Trump’s supporters are ecstatic, his opponents appalled: not since the war in Vietnam has the US looked so deeply divided. In his much-shared piece published the day after the election, New Yorkereditor David Remnick warned against the media normalisation that was sure to follow the result. But if anything positions have hardened in the two months since the inauguration, with Trump’s people renewing their attacks on the media, and his political detractors – no, enemies – oscillating between denial and anger: denial that a man who lost the popular vote and possibly conspired with the Russians to undermine Clinton could ever be deemed legitimate; and anger that someone so remote from the standards of liberal decency now sits in the Oval Office. Thus do the first two stages of grief define the liberal and progressive reaction: not morning in America but America in mourning.

More here.

Getting Us Through: Ralph Waldo Emerson

Jessica Collier in Avidly:

DogHiking with my young dog in the rainy woods, I think of Emerson. Normally, when amped on endorphins in inclement weather, I recall the seer of American optimism’s most jubilant moment: ’Crossing a bare common, in snow puddles, at twilight, under a clouded sky, without having in my thoughts any occurrence of special good fortune, I have enjoyed a perfect exhilaration. I am glad to the brink of fear.’ Today, as the pup bounces and skitters and slides along the trail, slippery with rotting underbrush, I feel myself twitch. Even at play, my body insists on a tensile state. It’s not Emerson the seer but Emerson the grieving father I call to mind. Later, at home, I flip a battered anthology open to ‘Experience,’ bookmarked years ago with a white paper clip. The essay, written after his son Waldo’s death, is longer than I remember, or maybe the timely, snappy news pieces that dominate my reading lately just make everything substantive and considered seem interminable.

…Here loss, a singular devastating event, doesn’t compare to the loss of sensation when you keep on keeping on. The grief comes in not feeling grief palpably enough: ‘There are moods in which we court suffering, in the hope that here, at least, we shall find reality, sharp peaks and edges of truth. But it turns out to be scene-painting and counterfeit. The only thing grief has taught me, is to know how shallow it is.’ Faced with this emotional subterfuge, Emerson lowers the bar in a way that’s painful to read and familiar to recount these days, when we shut down the barrage of news only to turn to Netflix for repose. ‘Do not craze yourself with thinking,’ he admonishes us pragmatically, ‘but go about your business anywhere. Life is not intellectual or critical, but sturdy. Its chief good is for well-mixed people who can enjoy what they find, without question.’

But there are always questions with Emerson, which is why we tolerate him. ‘Experience’ is a humbled litany, an ode to falling down and getting, if not entirely up again, then on. The final lines gear up to be a sop, a salve for the reader: ‘Patience and patience, we shall win at the last.’ Shall we, though? I ask out loud. The sentiment borders on patronizing—I wonder if optimism will ever feel authentic again—but he gives us reason to press on: ‘Never mind the ridicule, never mind the defeat: up again, old heart!—it seems to say,—there is victory yet for all justice.’ Emerson, like all of us inspecting optimism through the pall of loss, equivocates. He refuses to encourage the reader (or himself) directly, summoning instead a voice that ‘seems to say’ better days are ahead.

More here.