Michael Dirda at the Washington Post:
The 19th-century historian Leopold von Ranke famously urged reconstructing the past “wie es eigentlich gewesen,” to show how it really was. Insofar as she can, Roper adapts this motto to biography: She aims to track Luther’s “inner development,” to get inside his head: “I want to know how a sixteenth-century individual perceived the world around him, and why he viewed it in this way. I want to explore his inner landscapes so as to better understand his ideas about flesh and spirit.” She adds that “it was Luther’s vivid friendships and enmities that convinced me that he had to be understood through his relationships, and not as the lone hero of the Reformation myth.” As a result, her book situates this revolutionary thinker and his thought in the sociological, political and religious crosscurrents of contemporary Germany.
Born in 1483, Luther grew up in the mining town of Mansfeld, where his father was part of what we’d now call upper management. When young Martin toddled off to the university at Erfurt, he was supposed to come home a lawyer. But, following a terrifying epiphany during a thunderstorm, he instead resolved to become an Augustinian monk, despite paternal displeasure. Like psychologist Erik Erikson before her, Roper views Luther’s life in terms of authority figures that he initially revered, then outgrew and rejected.
Jon Meacham at the New York Times:
Virtually forgotten in our own time, Winchell is an undeniable architect of the way we live now — which makes Gabler’s biography essential reading. “A mention in his column or on his broadcast meant one was among the exalted,” Gabler wrote. “It meant that one’s name was part of the general fund of knowledge. It meant that one’s exploits, even if they were only the exploits of dining, rated acknowledgment. It meant that one’s life was validated.” Politically, Winchell, once an enthusiastic booster of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s, claimed to have introduced the New York lawyer (and later Donald Trump mentor) Roy Cohn to Senator Joseph McCarthy and the broadcaster’s program became a platform for the Red-baiting of the 1950s. Culturally, Winchell helped create the ambient world of celebrity that permanently blurred the lines between politics, policy, sports and entertainment. “This culture,” according to Gabler, “would bind an increasingly diverse, mobile and atomized nation until it became, in many respects, America’s dominant ethos, celebrity consciousness our new common denominator.”
To understand the narcissism of the first decades of the 21st century, it may help to realize that it is neither a sudden nor an entirely new phenomenon. “There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about,” Oscar Wilde’s Lord Henry remarked in 1890’s “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” “and that is not being talked about.” The world Wilde anticipated and Winchell crystallized can be explained by a few key texts that illuminate how we find ourselves with a president of the United States who used to call up New York tabloid writers (and would very likely have called Winchell, had Winchell still been around) posing as Trump spokesman “John Miller” or “John Barron” to talk about … himself.
In this extract from The Lottery of Birth: On Inherited Social Inequalities, Namit Arora talks about parsing through the fiction that he is the sole author of his success and about the wilful blindness among Indians about their inherited privileges.
Namit Arora in The Wire:
A leading ideological fiction of our age is that worldly success comes to those who deserve it. Per this fiction, the smarter, more talented and disciplined men and women, with some unfortunate exceptions, come out ahead of the rest and morally deserve their material rewards in life. The flip side of this belief is of course that, with some unfortunate exceptions, those who find themselves at the bottom also morally deserve their lot for being – the conclusion is inescapable – neither smart nor talented nor disciplined enough.
Such a view partly derives from what social psychologists call ‘belief in a just world’ (usually amplified by ideology, more on that in the extended Introduction in the book). This widely held belief presumes that humans live under an overarching moral order – whether based on divine providence, karma, destiny, social cause-effect or another principle – which tends to produce fair and predictable consequences for our actions. It’s a belief in just deserts that, to varying degrees, all of us subscribe to. It’s evident in phrases like ‘chickens coming home to roost’ or ‘what goes around, comes around’. This deep-seated belief may well be essential for human self-preservation. It enables us to make plans, engage in practical goal-oriented behaviour and take pride in the outcomes of our efforts. Many aspects of our world even help validate this belief. Indeed, it seems like a natural instinct among people in all societies.
Yet this belief also clashes with the daily evidence of a capricious natural and social world that randomly and unjustly shapes individuals’ outcomes in life. A strong belief in a just world has a dark side. When something threatens the comforting cocoon of this belief, it can lead us to either deny the evidence, or to explain it away using tactics like victim blaming or discounting others’ hardships – especially in the face of systemic injustices and other situations that we can do little about. This often arises from our need to avoid the pangs of guilt we might feel for our good fortune, or to help justify our apathy, or perhaps to get over the emotional discomfort of empathising with the victim.
Ed Yong in The Atlantic:
Around 45,000 years ago, in a Belgian cave, a Neanderthal died. As its body decayed, its cells split apart, spilling their contents onto the cave floor. Those remnants included the Neanderthal’s DNA, some of which stuck to minerals in the sediment. There, leashed to the very rock, the DNA persisted, long after its owner’s body had disappeared and its bones had been carted off by scavengers. And in 2015, a group of scientists scooped it up.
Viviane Slon from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology and her colleagues have now managed to extract and sequence the DNA of ancient animals from sediment that’s up to 240,000 years old. By doing so, they can infer the presence of Neanderthals, Denisovans, and other extinct hominids without ever having to find their bones. “We were surprised by how well it works,” says Slon. “The success rates were amazing.”
“I absolutely loved this,” says Jennifer Raff, who studies ancient DNA at the University of Kansas, and who was not involved in the study. “Although people have been working on recovering ancient DNA from sediments for a few years now, this is unprecedented in scope and success. My notes on the paper are full of exclamation marks. Woolly rhinoceros! Woolly mammoth! Cave bear! Neanderthal and Denisovans!”
Animals have a vast genetic aura that extends beyond their physical bodies into the world around them. Their DNA falls to the ground in balls of dung, zips through the air in blood-sucking insects, and leaches into the soil during decomposition. Scientists who study living animals have used this environmental DNA (eDNA) to identify everything from elephants and earthworms. They can conduct a census of the natural world without needing to spot any actual animals—a boon when working with rare or hard-to-spot species in inaccessible habitats.
Robert Burriss in Psychology Today:
The femme fatale is a stock character of classic film noir and hard-boiled detective stories: the seductive, fast-talking dame who lures a man into a trap of his own making. By the end of the tale, the man usually finds himself guilty of some hitherto undreamed-of crime, and wondering how he was ever convinced to err from the path of moral rectitude.
Of course, the audience is never in any doubt as to what transpired. The poor sap had sex on the brain. Confronted with the femme fatale, our hero never stood a chance.
This is all well and good as far as fiction goes, but does the femme fatale hold as much sway in the real world? Can a good guy be turned bad by a sexy dame?
This is a question that occurred to Wen-Bin Chiou, a psychologist at National Sun Yat-sen University in Taiwan. To find out, Chiou brought 74 heterosexual men to the laboratory. The volunteers were first shown photographs of women, which they had to rate for sex appeal. Half of the volunteers, selected at random, saw women who had previously been rated as sexy; the other half of the volunteers saw women who rated low for sexiness.
Afterwards, the men took part in what they were led to believe was an unrelated task.
Advances in computer science and engineering have lifted animatronic lovers from the realms of science fiction to reality; the first models are due to go on sale by the end of the year. Jenny Kleeman meets the men who are making the sex robots, the customers who want to buy them – and the critics who say they are dangerous. [From The Guardian.]
Video length: 16:25
James Salter in The Paris Review:
In Bertolt Brecht’s diaries he writes about such things as the essence of art, which he describes as “simplicity, grandeur, and sensitivity,” and its form, coolness.
…Making the shape and rhythm of sentences intensely felt was part of the teaching method at the writing school that James Jones and a woman named Lowney Handy established in Illinois in the years after the war. Jones was in the long process of writing his novel From Here to Eternity, and Lowney Handy was his muse. Students at the school sat for several hours every day copying out by hand passages written by Hemingway, Faulkner, and Thomas Wolfe to imbibe their strength and quality. It was the mimetic method, perhaps not as ridiculous as it sounds.
I would say that teaching writing is more like teaching dancing. If someone has a sense of rhythm, you might teach them something. There’s a great longing in people to be able to write, and the teaching of it, fiction and poetry, has become widespread in colleges and universities and outside of them as well. The teachers are often well-known and eagerly sought. Some are virtual gurus with doctrines and followers. In various cities there are private classes with selected students. You hear of a dramatic figure striking in appearance wearing boots and jodhpurs, perhaps with long white hair like a prophet, and bearing a kind of literary ichor, the fluid in the veins of the gods. He has a limitless number of great—known and lesser-known—books and authors at his fingertips, just as a musician knows a thousand pieces. He speaks only the truth, the core truth about everything and the truth about you, as a writer and as a person, which of necessity is likely to be hard. The class sessions are long, lasting for hours, and cannot be interrupted. Questions are not permitted. In this intensely charged atmosphere, the students read their stories aloud, and he stops them when they have made enough mistakes. For some, that is after a few sentences. Others are allowed to go to the end. The importance of the first sentence, he insists, can’t be overemphasized. It leads the way into the story. It sets its tone and also dictates the sentence that follows. Never begin a sentence with an adverb—it only tells what the sentence itself should reveal.
Zach Campbell at Harper's Magazine:
Some say that Arnaldo Otegi is an assassin. Others call him a peacemaker. Given his history, he might be a little of both. Otegi used to be a member of E.T.A., the armed militant group that fought in Spain for fifty years for an independent Basque state, first against the dictatorship of Francisco Franco in the 1960s and ’70s and later against the country’s democratically elected government. Otegi has gone to jail on terrorism charges three times, and is now the leader of the second strongest electoral force in the Basque Country. His actions led to E.T.A. issuing a ceasefire seven years ago, but the group still hasn’t disbanded.
In the Basque Country, violence is often justified behind closed doors. Since its inception in 1959, E.T.A. has killed over 800 people and, for decades, kidnapped and extorted to finance their activities. In response, Spain’s civilian and military police, and paramilitary groups financed by the Spanish government, killed hundreds and tortured thousands, even after the country’s transition to democracy. At different times in history, both sides have had enormous popular support in the Basque Country, and it has divided the region as much socially as it has politically. Here in many workplaces, schools, social circles, and even families, people found themselves on opposite sides of the conflict. Now after fifty years of conflict, Otegi says he knows how to end the war.
Ghaith Abdul-Ahad at The London Review of Books:
On the morning of 5 March a group of soldiers belonging to the Iraqi Special Operations Forces left the ruined village that had been their base for the past three weeks and drove north towards Mosul. Their target was the Baghdad Circle, a bleak intersection on the main highway into town, adorned since 2014 with a black and white billboard showing the black flag of Islamic State, with the seal of the prophet and beneath it the words ‘The Islamic State, Wilayat al-Mosul’. Since operations to recapture the western side of Mosul began in mid-February, the Iraqi soldiers had twice attacked the Circle and twice they had been pushed back.
‘They have formidable fortifications,’ an officer told me. IS had built a berm – a raised earthwork bank – with a trench behind it, and then another berm, all laid with IEDs. ‘In a whole day of fighting,’ the officer said, ‘we advanced no more than 150 metres.’
He pinched and zoomed a satellite map on his tablet. The Circle is the gateway to western Mosul, the oldest part of the city. The eastern part, on the other side of the Tigris, had been retaken by the end of January. Western Mosul, with its dense neighbourhoods and narrow streets, was a bigger challenge. As long as IS held the Circle, the officer explained, the highway to Baghdad could not be opened to traffic. Refugees and troops were forced to take a circuitous route through the hills to avoid snipers and rocket launchers. For the third attack, he said, a small team of special forces would cross the highway under cover of a massive barrage of fire, outflank the Circle and try to breach the fortifications from behind. Once a bridgehead was established, the rest of the troops would follow.
Holly B. Shakya and Nicholas A. Christakas at Harvard Business Review:
The average Facebook user spends almost an hour on the site every day, according to data provided by the company last year. A Deloitte survey found that for many smartphone users, checking social media apps are the first thing they do in the morning – often before even getting out of bed. Of course, social interaction is a healthy and necessary part of human existence. Thousands of studies have concluded that most human beings thrive when they have strong, positive relationships with other human beings.
The challenge is that most of the work on social interaction has been conducted using “real world,” face-to-face social networks, in contrast to the types of online relationships that are increasingly common. So, while we know that old-fashioned social interaction is healthy, what about social interaction that is completely mediated through an electronic screen? When you wake up in the morning and tap on that little blue icon, what impact does it have on you?
Prior research has shown that the use of social media may detract from face-to-face relationships, reduce investment in meaningful activities, increasesedentary behavior by encouraging more screen time, lead to internet addiction, and erode self-esteem through unfavorable social comparison. Self-comparison can be a strong influence on human behavior, and because peopletend to display the most positive aspects of their lives on social media, it is possible for an individual to believe that their own life compares negatively to what they see presented by others.
Julie Sedivy in Nautilus:
Reading medieval literature, it’s hard not to be impressed with how much the characters get done—as when we read about King Harold doing battle in one of the Sagas of the Icelanders, written in about 1230. The first sentence bristles with purposeful action: “King Harold proclaimed a general levy, and gathered a fleet, summoning his forces far and wide through the land.” By the end of the third paragraph, the king has launched his fleet against a rebel army, fought numerous battles involving “much slaughter in either host,” bound up the wounds of his men, dispensed rewards to the loyal, and “was supreme over all Norway.” What the saga doesn’t tell us is how Harold felt about any of this, whether his drive to conquer was fueled by a tyrannical father’s barely concealed contempt, or whether his legacy ultimately surpassed or fell short of his deepest hopes.
Jump ahead about 770 years in time, to the fiction of David Foster Wallace. In his short story “Forever Overhead,” the 13-year-old protagonist takes 12 pages to walk across the deck of a public swimming pool, wait in line at the high diving board, climb the ladder, and prepare to jump. But over these 12 pages, we are taken into the burgeoning, buzzing mind of a boy just erupting into puberty—our attention is riveted to his newly focused attention on female bodies in swimsuits, we register his awareness that others are watching him as he hesitates on the diving board, we follow his undulating thoughts about whether it’s best to do something scary without thinking about it or whether it’s foolishly dangerous not to think about it. These examples illustrate Western literature’s gradual progression from narratives that relate actions and events to stories that portray minds in all their meandering, many-layered, self-contradictory complexities. I’d often wondered, when reading older texts: Weren’t people back then interested in what characters thought and felt?
Somewhere at Google there is a database containing 25 million books and nobody is allowed to read them.
James Somers in The Atlantic:
You were going to get one-click access to the full text of nearly every book that’s ever been published. Books still in print you’d have to pay for, but everything else—a collection slated to grow larger than the holdings at the Library of Congress, Harvard, the University of Michigan, at any of the great national libraries of Europe—would have been available for free at terminals that were going to be placed in every local library that wanted one.
At the terminal you were going to be able to search tens of millions of books and read every page of any book you found. You’d be able to highlight passages and make annotations and share them; for the first time, you’d be able to pinpoint an idea somewhere inside the vastness of the printed record, and send somebody straight to it with a link. Books would become as instantly available, searchable, copy-pasteable—as alive in the digital world—as web pages.
It was to be the realization of a long-held dream. “The universal library has been talked about for millennia,” Richard Ovenden, the head of Oxford’s Bodleian Libraries, has said. “It was possible to think in the Renaissance that you might be able to amass the whole of published knowledge in a single room or a single institution.” In the spring of 2011, it seemed we’d amassed it in a terminal small enough to fit on a desk.
James Owen Weatherall in Nautilus:
Physicists know how to use quantum theory—your phone and computer give plenty of evidence of that. But knowing how to use it is a far cry from fully understanding the world the theory describes—or even what the various mathematical devices scientists use in the theory are supposed to mean. One such mathematical object, whose status physicists have long debated, is known as the quantum state.
One of the most striking features of quantum theory is that its predictions are, under virtually all circumstances, probabilistic. If you set up an experiment in a laboratory, and then you use quantum theory to predict the outcomes of various measurements you might perform, the best the theory can offer is probabilities—say, a 50 percent chance that you’ll get one outcome, and a 50 percent chance that you’ll get a different one. The role the quantum state plays in the theory is to determine, or at least encode, these probabilities. If you know the quantum state, then you can compute the probability of getting any possible outcome to any possible experiment.
But does the quantum state ultimately represent some objective aspect of reality, or is it a way of characterizing something about us, namely, something about what some person knows about reality? This question stretches back to the earliest history of quantum theory, but has recently become an active topic again, inspiring a slew of new theoretical results and even some experimental tests.
Adam Shatz in the London Review of Books:
One of the great paradoxes of the Obama era is that it encouraged so many liberals, both black and white, to see the black experience in America not as a slow, arduous struggle for freedom culminating in the election of a black president – Obama’s version, not surprisingly – but as an unending nightmare. Not least among the reasons was that a black man of unerring self-discipline and caution, bipartisan to a fault, should have provoked such ferocious white resistance – fanned by the man who questioned the validity of his birth certificate and then succeeded him as president. This most eloquent champion of ‘post-racialism’ may have been the most powerful man in the world, yet he remained a prisoner of his race, of his ‘black body,’ as Ta-Nehisi Coates put it in Between the World and Me.1 In the face of repeated police shootings of young black men or atrocities such as the church massacre in Charleston, South Carolina, Obama did little more than deliver one of his formidable speeches. And – as he did in Charleston – sing ‘Amazing Grace’, as if only a higher power could cure America of its original sin, and end the nightmare.
That nightmare began in the early 17th century, when Africans were packed into slave ships and transported to the American colonies, where they – or those who survived the Middle Passage – were sold at auction, stripped naked for the perusal of prospective buyers. With the defeat of the South in the Civil War – by 1804, all the northern states had abolished slavery – four million slaves won their freedom. Under the protection of federal troops, they gained the right to vote, and to elect representatives to state legislatures and the US Congress, in the unfinished revolution known as Reconstruction. But the forces of white supremacy in the former Confederacy proved resilient and inventive, and succeeded in overturning the gains of Reconstruction: black captivity wasn’t liquidated so much as reconfigured.
Gwendoline Riley at the Times Literary Supplement:
The stories in The Left Bank are often very short, but are hardly denuded. Here are glimpses, curiosities, street scenes. In these spates of impressions and perceptions, Rhys combines sensitivity and dash to bring us the ethnography of a nightclub (“Tout Montparnasse and a lady”) and a jazz café (“In a Café”) and a department store staff canteen (“Mannequin”), each as crowded as a sketchbook page. “In the Luxembourg Gardens” illustrates a pick-up, and would not look out of place in a seaside postcard-rack, while the narrator of “Illusion” is a demi-monde Miss Marple, keenly investigating a “gentlemanly” female friend’s proclivity for hoarding frocks. Each character comes fully accoutred, with pipe or dirty waistcoat, spectacles, or monocle, green hat or yellow wig, string bag, silver rings – and ready to peer cautiously through atelier doors, or rush into a café, or burst into song.
Their situations run from “rum” to “gay”, though with a marked tendency to the former. Montparnasse is described as “full of tragedy – all sorts – blatant, hidden, silent, voluble, quick, slow”. The voice that tells all this is sometimes abject, but more often downright larky, if savagely so. It can declare: “Poor Sara . . . also a Romantic!” Or “Poor André! Let us hope he had some compensation for forgetting for once that ‘eat or be eaten’ is the inexorable law of life”. It can lament, damn and dispense. It isn’t cruel, though. How could it, why would it, out-cruel such a cruel world? In fact it can conjure pure pity. Of an exhausted drunk, Rhys writes, “She sighed heavily, instinctively, as a dog sighs”.