Inside the Ruins: On Derek Walcott’s Life and Work

OldhouseE. Thomas Finan at The Millions:

In March, the acclaimed poet Derek Walcott died at the age of 87. Born on the Caribbean island of Saint Lucia, Walcott became a literary voice known throughout the globe. Celebrated for his verse and his plays, he won the Nobel Prize in Literature, a MacArthur “genius” grant, an Obie award, and countless other prizes. He also taught at a number of institutions, including Boston University (where I now teach, though I didn’t know Walcott personally).

Reconciliation was one of Walcott’s great tasks as a poet. He fused the iconography of the Americas and of Europe in order to create a hybrid poetry. He combined allusions to classical myths with descriptions of the landscape of his native Saint Lucia, and he incorporated quotations from countless European authors in his works. This enterprise of poetic fusion reached a peak in perhaps his most famous work,Omeros, a reworking of Homer that loosely follows the terza rima verse form used by Dante Alighieri in The Divine Comedy. Omeros was published shortly before Walcott won the Nobel Prize in 1992, and, at least if last month’s obituaries are to be believed, will go down as a landmark piece in his poetic oeuvre.

While Omeros has gotten most of the headlines, a shorter and much earlier poem, 1956’s “Ruins of a Great House” reveals some of the abiding concerns of Walcott’s work in a more condensed way. In only about 50 lines, it shows how Walcott reworked tradition and reflected on the legacy of colonialism. The poem’s setting is the manor house at the heart of a former lime plantation. The speaker wanders the ruins of the house and conjures hints of the suffering wrought by life on this plantation.

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Jack London’s Political Writings

UrlHoward Tharsing at Threepenny Review:

In 1896, when Jack London was twenty, the San Francisco Chroniclehad referred to him as “the boy socialist of Oakland.” His fame grew out of his power as a public speaker. Week after week he stood on a soap box in the little park in front of City Hall arguing that the unbridled capitalism of his day condemned a great many of his fellow citizens to lives of degradation and misery while enriching a small number outrageously. Dozens of speakers held forth in the park every week, but Jack London always drew the biggest crowds and held their attention better than any other speaker. And in 1897, when Oakland passed a law forbidding public meetings on public streets, London challenged the law by getting himself arrested for climbing on that soap box and speaking. Oakland authorities were surprised that instead of paying the fine or consenting to spend a few days in jail, London demanded a jury trial. Acting as his own lawyer, London argued that the law violated the constitution’s guarantees of the rights to freedom of speech and freedom of assembly, and he won.

Even at that young age, London already had long experience in the exploitation of labor and the difficulties suffered by the poor. He had worked in a fish cannery, in a coal mine, and in a jute factory, and as a fisherman, a seal hunter, an oyster pirate, and an officer in the Fish Patrol. He had traveled across the country as a hobo jumping trains. He had spent thirty days in jail in upstate New York on a charge of vagrancy.

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Queer Theorem: toward a life beyond mechanistic science

Samantha Hunt in Lapham's Quarterly:


ChakeresWhen I wrote my book about Tesla, I thought he belonged to me alone. I had never heard of him before. No one had ever taught me about him in school, and certainly no one had ever named a car after him. I knew only of Tesla the hair-metal band. When I discovered Tesla the poet-inventor, who built a motor powered by june bugs at age nine, and later harnessed Niagara Falls, and later concocted ways to photograph thought, it seemed I’d dreamed him into existence. Thus he belonged to me, only me. Tesla worked independently in laboratories he built himself with little corporate or military interference. He invented radio. He invented our modern AC electrical system. But as he often failed to protect his patents—not believing a person could own thunder and lightning—eventually he could no longer afford a proper laboratory. He then made his inventions in his New York City hotel rooms, in his mind. What’s the difference between invention and discovery? Is it just a question of ego? Or is it one of money? Living with Tesla’s legacy and papers for more than three years of research, one hard thought kept cropping up. Everywhere I knew people who were making buildings, mugs, plays, paintings, sweaters, chocolate, operas, but I didn’t know any people, except children, who were trying to fly, who were grafting DNA for wings. I didn’t know anyone with a basement lab made for playing with protons. I wondered why we are well acquainted with the phrase starving artist while the term starving scientist does not even exist.

The Internet

I now receive email from men who also believe that Tesla belongs to them alone. Some of these men are angry that I, a woman, a nonengineer, speak for Tesla. Some of these men host ideas about life on Venus, the spirit molecule, free energy, government cover-ups and conspiracies. Some of these men are just glad Tesla has finally been recognized. I like the mad men the best. I imagine they have good dreams.

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This Caterpillar Can Eat Plastic

Jason Daley in Smithsonian:

Waxworm_plasticWax worms, which are the larval stage of the wax moth Galleria mellonella, are commonly used in the United States as fishing bait or birdfeeder snacks. But in Europe, the worms are considered a beehive pest where they chew through the beeswax, disrupting the hive. But researchers have found another use as plastic recyclers. Federica Bertocchini, an amateur beekeeper and scientist at the Spanish National Research Council, picked some wax worms out of one of her beehives and put them in a plastic shopping bag. She left to clean the honeycomb panels. When she returned, the worms were all over the place. "When I checked, I saw that the bag was full of holes. There was only one explanation: The worms had made the holes and had escaped. This project began there and then," she says in a press release. Bertocchini and colleagues from Cambridge University began studying the creatures and found that the common wax worm can not only munch but also metabolize polyethylene, the plastic in shopping bags which makes up about 40 percent of the plastics used in Europe. They published their results this week in the journal Current Biology. In order to study the worms’ munching ability, the researchers put 100 wax worms in a plastic shopping bag from a U.K. supermarket. Within 40 minutes, holes began to appear. Within 12 hours, they had eaten about 92 milligrams of plastic, which Bertocchini says is pretty fast, especially compared to bacteria discovered last year which dissolves polyethylene at a rate of about 0.13 milligrams per day. As Ian Sample at The Guardian reports, the researchers wanted to make sure the worms weren’t just chewing the plastic into microscopic particles. So they smooshed up some of the worms and applied the paste to the plastic, which also caused holes to appear.

“The caterpillars are not just eating the plastic without modifying its chemical make-up. We showed that the polymer chains in polyethylene plastic are actually broken by the wax worms,” co-author Paolo Bombelli says in a press release. “The caterpillar produces something that breaks the chemical bond, perhaps in its salivary glands or a symbiotic bacteria in its gut. The next steps for us will be to try and identify the molecular processes in this reaction and see if we can isolate the enzyme responsible.” The hope is that the discovery could lead to a method for breaking down polyethylene that is currently filling in landfills and clogging waterways. But just how that will work is speculative. The enzyme could be produced by modified E. coli bacteria or plankton that would attack plastic in the wild, writes Sample. Bombelli also suggests it may be possible to breed and release an army of wax worms. But that means learning more about the worm’s motivation.

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Americans are now utterly intolerant of ever being told they’re wrong about almost anything

Tom Nichols in Market Watch:

ScreenHunter_2687 Apr. 26 23.40Why can’t Americans agree about anything? The United States has survived through periods of great division and yet today we all now seem incapable of finding common ground on even the smallest issues. This is a problem that is approaching the level of a national crisis that threatens our democracy.

Some of this tendentiousness is part of an irascible American culture that is, paradoxically, woven into our greatness as a nation. Our willingness to speak our minds and rely on our own common sense has been central to an American character noted by Tocqueville and others since our founding as a nation.

Still, American politics were once characterized by a fair amount of bipartisanship and even ticket-splitting in national elections. Today, in public forums, we engage each other not to learn or to converse, but to fight along the harshest and most intractable partisan lines — and to win, no matter how obnoxious we must be in order to carry the day.

Of course, some of this problem is generated by human nature, especially the problem of “confirmation bias.” We want to believe that our experiences and our beliefs, including the important issue of how we view ourselves, explain the world around us. We naturally want to reject evidence that conflicts with those cherished views (especially the ones about ourselves). We all do it, and it’s why we so easily drive each other crazy in our daily conversations.

More here. [Thanks to Ali Minai.]

Most of us don’t really understand how mirrors work, which makes for some fun reflective deception

Susana Martinez-Conde and Stephen L. Macknik in Scientific American:

FDDECA4D-AF6B-4830-ADC134D33B0A8440_sourceWe are surrounded by mirrors all day, every day—when we drive, brush our teeth, check our hair while heading out the door. Yet for all their ubiquity, mirrors remain somewhat mysterious. In folktales and fiction at least, they can be conduits to spiritual, magical or supernatural realms: mirrors can out the soulless vampires in our midst. They can summon the legendary hook-handed murderer known as Candyman. And the Mirror of Erised—of Harry Potter fame—holds the remarkable power to lay bare its viewer's deepest desire.

Our enchantment with mirrors may stem in part from the fact that they often defy expectations. Not only do we find the right-left reversal of reflecting surfaces discomfiting, but many of our hard-won intuitions about how mirrors work are dead wrong. Psychologist Marco Bertamini of the University of Liverpool in England and his colleagues have identified three false beliefs we typically have about mirrors: First, people usually predict that they will see themselves in a mirror before they arrive in front of it. In other words, they overestimate what is visible in a mirror. This miscalculation is called the “early error.” Second, most people assume that their projection on a mirror (the outline they could trace with a pen on its surface) is the same size as their body. In reality, that projection, as they see it, is half the physical size of their body. Third, people tend to think that the mirror projection of their own image will shrink with distance, so they will see their full body in a small mirror if they move far enough away from it. But in fact, distance does not affect the size of a body's projection. Moreover, some research indicates that people see objects in a mirror as somehow less real than nonreflected ones. The illusions we present here all take advantage of how little we grasp about the looking glass.

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Your Identity Politics Won’t Save Science

Debra W. Soh in Playboy:

Main_1_On a beautiful sunny morning on Saturday, I followed hundreds of women, men and children making their way through Toronto’s downtown core as part of the highly publicized March for Science that took place in Washington, D.C. and another 610 cities around the world. There was no tear gas or trees lit on fire—just a lot of white lab coats and witty protest signs like “Cell-ebrate Science” and “Alternative Facts are the Square Root of Negative 1.”

Sounds uplifting, doesn’t it? In reality, scientists have been critical of the March for Science since its inception, with public figures, notably Steven Pinker and Michael Shermer, speaking out. What I found particularly concerning was the March’s emphasis on intersectionality as a “core principle.” This theory is fuelled by anti-science sentiments, such as the belief that we should prioritize subjective feelings over objective fact. These ideas have no place in the discourse on legitimate science.

Many of the people I spoke with were scientists protesting President Donald Trump’s defunding; others were self-proclaimed defenders of science or had friends and family working in research.

But at the March, it took all of about five minutes before many of the organized speakers broke out the usual identity politics rhetoric, with talk about how “race, religion, gender and class” should not divide us. Don’t get me wrong, I totally agree with this, but since the goal of science is to be impartial, it really wasn’t necessary for them to keep pointing this out. Another speaker blamed “power structures” and capitalism for our current predicament. I saw people holding anti-fascism signs and wasn’t sure what this had to do with funding cuts to the NIH or NASA.

More here. [Thanks to Patrick Lee Miller.]

Rethinking Europe

Gabriel_Macron_Habermas_Which-future-for-Europe-5.2Sigmar Gabriel, Jürgen Habermas, and Emmanuel Macron at Eurozine:

Jürgen Habermas: I have been entrusted with the honour of saying a few introductory words about the subject of our conversation between our distinguished guest Emmanuel Macron and Sigmar Gabriel, our foreign minister who recently rose like the proverbial phoenix from the ashes. Both names are associated with courageous reactions to challenging situations. Emmanuel Macron has dared to cross a red line hitherto untouched since 1789. He has broken apart the entrenched configuration of the two political camps of right and left. Given that it is impossible in a democracy for any individual to stand above the parties, we are curious to see how the political spectrum will be reconfigured if, as expected, he is victorious in the French election.

In Germany we can observe a similar impulse, albeit under different auspices. Here too, Sigmar Gabriel has chosen his friend Martin Schulz for an unorthodox role. Schulz has been welcomed by the public as a largely independent candidate for the chanchellorship and is expected to lead his party in a new direction. Although the political, economic and social situations in our two countries are very different, the fundamental mentality of citizens seems to me to reflect a similar feeling of irritation– irritation about the inertia of governments that, despite the palpably increasing pressure of the problems we face continue to muddle along without any prospect of restructuring. We feel that the lack of political will to act is paralysing, particularly given the problems that can only be resolved collectively, on a European level.

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Leonora Carrington, Nazis, and the surrealist dream

2017_13_leonora_carrington_openerYo Zushi at The New Statesman:

Carrington later documented the decline of her mental health in Down Below, an extraordinary account of her life in a sanatorium in Madrid, to which she was committed after suffering paranoid delusions on her way to Portugal. Insanity, for her, took the form of a powerful “identification with the external world”, which somehow involved the hypnotic control of Europe by a Dutchman called Van Ghent (who was also “my father, my enemy, and the enemy of mankind”). In her introduction, Marina Warner notes that Carrington “had realised one of the most desirable ambitions of surrealism, the voyage down into madness”; yet, stripped of the playful intellectualism of the art movement, the “absolute disorientation” that Breton idealised is difficult to experience as a reader with much pleasure.

Carrington regained her freedom after reacquainting herself with Renato Leduc, who offered to marry her to facilitate her escape to New York: travel was easy for him because he was an embassy employee. In Lisbon, her mind slowly recovered and she prepared for a new life in the US. But, in that hub of the Western universe, it was hard to leave the past behind. One day, she glanced across a market and saw Max Ernst, who had been released by the French at last.

more here.

The Life and Death of Louis Kahn

Article00Wendy Lesser at Bookforum:

It was not just the suddenness of his death that made it hard to realize Louis Kahn was gone. Something about the way he disappeared from the world—irregularly, mysteriously, with that strange two-day gap when nobody he knew could find him—left many people unable to take in the facts of his death.

For the California relatives, who learned about Lou’s death through a series of relayed phone calls, there was a persistent confusion about where and how he had died. Decades later, Kahn’s niece, nephew, grandnephew, and two grandnieces all thought he had suffered a heart attack on the way back from Bangladesh; their memories, that is, selected his much-celebrated Dhaka project over the rarely discussed Ahmedabad campus. They knew he had died in a train station, but at least two of them remembered it as Grand Central—again, a more appropriately monumental choice. (These erroneous details proved to be so persuasive that they even entered the historical record, for in a 1993 Toledo Blade article listing the highlights of Louis Kahn’s life, the Ohio newspaper included the line: “1974 – Dies of heart attack in Grand Central Station, New York City, en route from Bangladesh to Philadelphia.”) The West Coast Kahns believed, moreover, that Lou’s body, with its characteristically messy hair and rumpled clothing, had been taken for that of a transient for two days, until somebody finally realized who it was. Part of their distress had to do with this idea of unrecognizability: they could hardly credit that someone as famous as Louis I. Kahn could go unidentified for two days.

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Calligraffiti: calligraphy and Western graffiti come together

India Stoughton in The Economist:

CaliThe boxy red-brick buildings of Cairo’s Manshiyat Naser district are uniform in colour but slightly different in size and shape. Tightly packed together with a ramshackle appearance, they stand along narrow alleyways, where green and white sacks stuffed with rubbish lie in malodorous heaps. More bulging bags spill over balcony rails or pile up on rooftops beside dusty satellite dishes. One of Cairo’s poorest neighbourhoods and home to the city’s rubbish collectors, Manshiyat Naser is the unlikely canvas on which French-Tunisian artist eL Seed chose to paint “Perception”, a sprawling mural spanning more than 50 buildings. Odd corners and asymmetrical patches of brickwork have been daubed with blue, orange and white paint, startlingly bright amid the adhesive dust and dirt. On a flat, earth-covered rooftop on which a herd of sheep mills calmly several storeys above the ground, two segments of the low wall have been whitewashed and covered with uneven orange triangles fringed with black. They seem abstract and random. But stand in the cafeteria on top of Mokattam, a nearby hill, and all these mismatched patches of paint suddenly come together, forming a single phrase written in Arabic calligraphy and thus transforming a collection of ugly buildings into a poem that celebrates the neighbourhood’s history and culture.

Manshiyat Naser is home to the Zaraeeb, a Coptic Christian community known to the people of Cairo as zabaleen – “rubbish people”. “I thought these people were living in the garbage, when actually they were living from the garbage,” says eL Seed. “I got this switch of perception and realised that I was wrong…Sometimes when you want to see someone’s real face you just have to change the angle.” The phrase eL Seed chose is an aphorism attributed to St Athanasius of Alexandria, a third-century Coptic bishop: “He who wants to see the light of the sun must first wipe his eyes.” To the artist, it means that “if you want to judge anybody, you must first wipe away the dirt from your eyes, all the misconceptions that you have about somebody, or about a community. For me, the sunlight is the idea of truth.”

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How Peruvian coastal deserts respond to rains will aid future disaster response

Barbara Fraser in Nature:

WEB_GettyImages-656970668Torrential rains pummelled Peru’s northern coastal desert in February and March, triggering floods that killed at least 113 people and destroyed some 40,000 homes. As families grapple with their losses and government officials tally the cost of repair and reconstruction, scientists are gearing up for an unusual opportunity to study ecosystems that go decades without much rain. The rains were spurred by an unusual ‘coastal’ El Niño climate pattern, in which warm water pooled off the coast of southern Ecuador and northern Peru — more so than during the much larger 2015–16 El Niño. Rains fell in both countries, but the human toll was highest in Peru’s normally parched northern desert.

In the now-greening land, plants are growing, bird populations are shifting and rivers are moving sediments and pollution in ways they haven’t done for two decades. What scientists learn as they descend on the region could aid conservation efforts and help people and government officials to prepare for severe weather events. “Except for the impacts on the people,” says biologist Juan Torres of La Molina National Agrarian University in Lima, “this is a meteoro­logically enchanting moment.” Once roads are passable, Torres will visit field sites that he studied after the powerful 1997–98 El Niño, which also soaked the region. At that time, Torres found wild relatives of domesticated crops — including tomatoes, peppers, potatoes and squash — that had sprouted from dormant seeds. This year, he will again catalogue wild plants, along with the crops that farmers choose to grow on lands made fertile by the flooding. Part of the northern desert is irrigated farmland, but there are also patches of a dry forest that has been devastated in recent years by industrial agriculture, urban sprawl and the charcoal trade. Oliver Whaley at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, in London, has studied Peru’s dry forests for 25 years, and hopes that the rain will bring respite to the ecosystem.

More here.

Wednesday Poem

What Have I Learned

What have I learned but
the proper use for several tools?

The moments
between hard pleasant tasks

To sit silent, drink wine,
and think my own kind
of dry crusty thoughts.

—the first Calochortus flowers
and in all the land,
it’s spring.
I point them out:
the yellow petals, the golden hairs,
to Gen.

Seeing in silence:
never the same twice,
but when you get it right,

you pass it on.

by Gary Snyder
from No Nature
Pantheon Books, 1992

US has regressed to developing nation status, MIT economist warns

Chloe Farand in The Independent:

9780262036160America is regressing to have the economic and political structure of a developing nation, an MIT economist has warned.

Peter Temin says the world's’ largest economy has roads and bridges that look more like those in Thailand and Venezuela than those in parts of Europe.

In his new book, “The Vanishing Middle Class", reviewed by the Institute for New Economic Thinking, Mr Temin says the fracture of US society is leading the middle class to disappear.

The economist describes a two-track economy with on the one hand 20 per cent of the population that is educated and enjoys good jobs and supportive social networks.

On the other hand, the remaining 80 per cent, he said, are part of the US’ low-wage sector, where the world of possibility has shrunk and people are burdened with debts and anxious about job security.

Mr Temin used a model, which was created by Nobel Prize winner Arthur Lewis and designed to understand developing nations, to describe how far inequalities have progressed in the US.

When applied to the US, Mr Temin said that “the Lewis model actually works”.

More here.

Elon Musk’s Neuralink could represent next stage of human evolution

Tim Urban in Wait But Why:

ScreenHunter_2685 Apr. 25 20.09Okay maybe that’s not exactly how it happened, and maybe those weren’t his exact words. But after learning about the new company Elon Musk was starting, I’ve come to realize that that’s exactly what he’s trying to do.

When I wrote about Tesla and SpaceX, I learned that you can only fully wrap your head around certain companies by zooming both way, way in and way, way out. In, on the technical challenges facing the engineers, out on the existential challenges facing our species. In on a snapshot of the world right now, out on the big story of how we got to this moment and what our far future could look like.

Not only is Elon’s new venture—Neuralink—the same type of deal, but six weeks after first learning about the company, I’m convinced that it somehow manages to eclipse Tesla and SpaceX in both the boldness of its engineering undertaking and the grandeur of its mission. The other two companies aim to redefine what future humans will do—Neuralink wants to redefine what future humans will be.

The mind-bending bigness of Neuralink’s mission, combined with the labyrinth of impossible complexity that is the human brain, made this the hardest set of concepts yet to fully wrap my head around—but it also made it the most exhilarating when, with enough time spent zoomed on both ends, it all finally clicked. I feel like I took a time machine to the future, and I’m here to tell you that it’s even weirder than we expect.

More here.