Raghu Raman writes:
For all the xenophobic war mongering touted in every medium, India cannot ‘win’ a war against Pakistan and the sooner we appreciate this politico-military reality, the more coherent and serious we will sound to our adversaries and the world community. The demands for a ‘once and for all’ resolution of Kashmir/Pakistan emanating from several quarters, which surprisingly includes some veterans – equating India’s non-retaliation with impotence – perhaps don’t factor the larger picture and the stark truth of modern military warfare.
Matter of fact, short of total genocide, no country regardless of its war-withal can hope to achieve a decisive victory with a ‘short war’ in today’s world. As the US is discovering eight years, trillion dollars and over 25,000 casualties later – in Afghanistan. That era of “decisive” short wars – especially in context of an Indo-Pak war is largely over because of several reasons.
Firstly – the much vaunted Indian military superiority is largely an accounting subterfuge. Sure we have more soldiers, tanks, aircrafts and ships than Pakistan, but banking on mere numbers is misleading and irrelevant in military strategy. Pakistan has successfully locked down over 30% of our Army in internal counter insurgency roles that not only sucks in combat troops from their primary roles for prolonged periods, but also alienates the local population in the valley.
Oliver Kamm in The Sunday Times of London:
Not knowing what a passive is, Evans just throws the term around regardless. He claims to have “identified four occasions where the passive voice may be preferred”, but two of his purported examples are in the active voice and he hasn’t noticed. (Here’s one, which Evans labels the pussyfooting passive: “The last of the chocolate ice cream was missing from the freezer . . .” And here’s the other: “The complexity of designing an aerial propeller was troubling to Wilbur . . .” No passives in sight.)
Evans’s advice is balderdash born of ignorance and ineptitude, but luckily he’s too incompetent to follow it, for the book is replete with passive clauses (real ones, I mean, like “the denial was reviewed by Dr Kenneth Robbins . . .”). Blunders pile up. Evans warns against misplaced modifiers yet the example he gives of that mild stylistic blemish isn’t a misplaced modifier.
He says: “There is no such condition as nearly unanimous. The vote is either unanimous or not.” (Try googling “nearly unanimous” and see whether or not it exists.) He scorns use of less in place of fewer: “Nobody would think of saying fewer coffee, fewer sugar, but every day somebody writes less houses.” Well, indeed; the obvious (and correct) inference is that less with count nouns is grammatical standard English whereas fewer with mass nouns isn’t.
Timothy Revell in New Scientist [h/t: Jennifer Ouellette]:
Want to borrow my tent? No problem, that will be £25 please. That might sound annoying, but it will be better for society in the long run. Surprisingly, this is the conclusion reached by a new game theory analysis of sharing goods.
With larger and more expensive items that are used infrequently, like power tools and hiking gear, people often face a choice between buying one themselves or borrowing from a friend. Assuming that this choice solely comes down to cost, Ariel Procaccia and colleagues at Carnegie Melon University in Pennsylvania wanted to see what outcome these individual decisions have on society as a whole.
In their first simulation, people were able to borrow items for free from their friends. Considering overall wealth, “in this situation the cost for society was really bad,” says Procaccia. “Everyone tried to optimise their own situation, but this was far from the optimum for society,” he says.
To picture what goes wrong, imagine a town where people very occasionally want access to a circular saw. Most of the time the item remains unused, so anyone who owns one is happy to lend it to friends for free.
Terry Eagleton in The Guardian:
The title of the Conservative party manifesto is “Forward, Together”, presumably because “Backward, Apart” isn’t much of a vote catcher. The prime minister’s mind-numbing mantra, “strong and stable government” (anyone for the weak and turbulent kind?) crops up twice in consecutive lines on the first page, suggesting that the authors have a rather dim-witted audience in mind. Less blandly, Labour calls its manifesto “For the Many, Not the Few”, cunningly calculating that this might have a wider appeal than “For the Posh and Powerful, Not For Riff-Raff Like You”.
Writing these things can’t be easy. You need to talk about the British Coal superannuation scheme surplus while still managing to sound a high moral tone. Party manifestos are part sermon, part technical guide. They must be morally uplifting but down to earth, confident but not complacent, inspirational yet briskly practical. The luckless hacks who write them must also resign themselves to the fact that, apart from journalists and political nerds, they probably attract a smaller readership than War and Peace.
The Tory manifesto errs on the sermonising side, full of pious sentiment and high-minded rhetoric. Most of the sentiments are drearily predictable (“Britain has always been a great trading nation”) while one or two are not, such as: “We do not believe in untrammelled free markets. We reject the cult of selfish individualism. We abhor social division, injustice, unfairness and inequality.”
The phrase “except in practice” seems to have been accidentally omitted.
Josie Delap in More Intelligent Life:
On an ordinary Monday evening Nando’s in Whitechapel in east London is buzzing. Gaggles of girls in hijabs, groups of young men with bulging biceps, families with chubby babies, smartly dressed single women – everyone is there. They choose their chicken (boneless thighs, whole birds, spatchcocked, platters of wings, blander breasts), then its seasoning, lemon and herb, mango and lime, hot, extra hot, before anointing it with lashings of peri-peri sauce. It is a long way from Chickenland, the small café in a grotty mining suburb of Johannesburg where Nando’s began in 1987. It was there that Robbie Brozin, one of the company’s founders, says he discovered peri-peri chicken. Spicy, healthy, different, delicious; he loved it. So he and Fernando Duarte – after whom the restaurants are named – bought the diner and gave peri-peri chicken to the world. And the world has fallen in love with it too. Its appeal is democratic in the extreme. It cuts across boundaries of age, class, ethnicity and status. Jay-Z, Oprah Winfrey and David Beckham can be counted among its devotees. Beyoncé once spent nearly £1,500 ($1,865) in a British branch. Prince Harry and David Cameron have been spotted getting their peri-peri fix. Before South Africa’s liberation, the African National Congress’s shadow cabinet used to eat at Nando’s. Nelson Mandela was a huge fan, says Brozin.
…At the heart of Nando’s success is peri-peri. In its original form the flavouring dates back to the 15th century when Portuguese colonisers in Mozambique added locally grown chillies to their lemon-grilled chicken. It spread throughout southern Africa, evolving as it went. In northern Mozambique, coconut plays a strong role. In the south, lemon and garlic are more dominant. Brozin says they tweaked Chickenland’s peri-peri sauce for a couple of years at the start, but since then it has been more or less the same the world over. Its base is the African bird’s-eye chilli. Such is Nando’s output that 1,400 farmers in southern Africa now grow a unique variety of the plant just for the chain. Chillies are like wine, explains Sam Hirst, who oversees the farms; terroir matters. The sun, the soil, the management of the plants all influence the flavour.
Ingrid Rowland in The New York Review of Books:
On All Hallow’s Eve of 1517, Martin Luther, Augustinian friar and professor of theology, posted a broadsheet on the faculty bulletin board of tiny, provincial Wittenberg University in the German state of Saxony (which happened to be the door of the church attached to the local lord’s castle). The poster was no Halloween prank; it proclaimed, according to academic custom, his willingness to debate a series of propositions in public. Although he also sent copies of the same broadsheet to important statesmen, churchmen, and academics outside Wittenberg, no one seems to have taken up his challenge to a formal discussion. His propositions were too explosive for that; in blunt, forceful language, they questioned the basic beliefs of the church to which, as a Hermit of Saint Augustine, he had vowed his obedience.
Luther would say that his life’s turning point came two years later, when he had a sudden revelation about the nature of Christian salvation. For his contemporaries, however, the posting of his ninety-five theses in 1517 set off the spark that ignited the Protestant Reformation, and the Reformation in turn marked a fundamental stage in the forging of a collective German identity.
Joshua Sokol in Quanta:
Millions of years ago, a few spiders abandoned the kind of round webs that the word “spiderweb” calls to mind and started to focus on a new strategy. Before, they would wait for prey to become ensnared in their webs and then walk out to retrieve it. Then they began building horizontal nets to use as a fishing platform. Now their modern descendants, the cobweb spiders, dangle sticky threads below, wait until insects walk by and get snagged, and reel their unlucky victims in.
In 2008, the researcher Hilton Japyassú prompted 12 species of orb spiders collected from all over Brazil to go through this transition again. He waited until the spiders wove an ordinary web. Then he snipped its threads so that the silk drooped to where crickets wandered below. When a cricket got hooked, not all the orb spiders could fully pull it up, as a cobweb spider does. But some could, and all at least began to reel it in with their two front legs.
Their ability to recapitulate the ancient spiders’ innovation got Japyassú, a biologist at the Federal University of Bahia in Brazil, thinking. When the spider was confronted with a problem to solve that it might not have seen before, how did it figure out what to do? “Where is this information?” he said. “Where is it? Is it in her head, or does this information emerge during the interaction with the altered web?”
In February, Japyassú and Kevin Laland, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Saint Andrews, proposed a bold answer to the question.
More here. [Thanks to Ali Minai.]
From IFL Science:
Google’s pretty good when it comes to designing artificial intelligence. Its most famous neural network, DeepMind, is both able to “dream” and understand the benefits of betrayal. It’s also better than any living human at the infinitely complex game, Go.
As impressive as this is, Google is determined to show the world it’s not just a one-trick pony. At Google’s I/O 2017 conference last week, its CEO Sundar Pichai made some rather striking comments on AutoML, another neural network process that generates layer upon layer of complex code and algorithms to “learn” about its environment.
Normally, each of these layers – segments of an AI’s whole, essentially – have to be crafted by people, and it takes time. Google had the bright idea of getting the pre-existing AI to create its own layers of code, and as it turns out, it’s doing it a lot faster and more effectively than its human technicians ever could.
Google’s AI has become its own creator.
Wolfgang Streeck in The New Left Review:
What is significant about the politics of internationalization is the conformity with which those described as ‘elites’, contemptuously by the ‘populists’ and approvingly by themselves, react to the new parties. ‘Populism’ is diagnosed in normal internationalist usage as a cognitive problem. Its supporters are supposed to be people who demand ‘simple solutions’ because they do not understand the necessarily complex solutions that are so indefatigably and successfully delivered by the tried and tested forces of internationalism; their representatives are cynics who promise ‘the people’ the ‘simple solutions’ they crave, even though they know that there are no alternatives to the complex solutions of the technocrats. In this way, the emergence of the new parties can be explained as a Great Regression on the part of the Little People, manifesting itself as a lack both of education and of respect for the educated. This can be accompanied by ‘discourses’ about the desirability of abolishing referendums or handing political decisions over to unpolitical experts and authorities.
At the level of everyday life, this leads to the moral and cultural exclusion of anti-globalization parties and their supporters. The declaration of their cognitive immaturity is followed by moral denunciation of their calls for a national politics providing a bulwark against the risks and side effects of internationalization. The relevant battle cry, which is to mobilize painful memories of racism and war, is ‘ethno-nationalism’. ‘Ethno-nationalists’ are not up to dealing with the challenges of globalization, neither the economic ones—‘global competition’—nor the moral ones. Their ‘fears and concerns’, as the official phrase puts it, ‘are to be taken seriously’, but only in the mode of social work. Protests against material and moral degradation are suspected of being essentially fascist, especially now that the former advocates of the plebeian classes have switched to the globalization party, so that if their former clients wish to complain about the pressures of capitalist modernization, the only language at their disposal is the pre-political, untreated linguistic raw material of everyday experiences of deprivation, economic or cultural. This results in constant breaches of the rules of civilized public speech, which in turn can trigger indignation at the top and mobilization at the bottom. In response, losers and refusers of internationalization try to elude moral censure by exiting from public media and entering the ‘social media’. In this way they can make use of the most globalized of all infrastructures to build up their own separatist communication circles in which they need not fear being reprimanded for being culturally and morally backward.
at the Quarterly Conversation:
Tar’s real strength lies in his ability to reveal the general human condition through the articulation of the particular. Far from the dry and descriptive nature of the well-known East European genre of sociography, he creates an interconnected world that is not only living and breathing but also sensibly suffering and rotting away. The authenticity of this world rests on his intimate knowledge of the materiality of the place—fictive as it is—and the everyday rituals and customs of a disintegrating community, the web of meanings that guide and constrain the lives of the characters. Yet, like other masters of the short story, from Hemingway to Raymond Carver, Tar skillfully uses the method of understatement. His minimalistic texts offer just the right amount of revelatory, iconic details, hinting at the existence of an entire submerged world: a wasted life, a grotesque fate, a checkered past, a hidden pain through fragments. As the critic Lajos Jánossy observed, Tar “depicts his world with such a dramatic asceticism, and he is capable of creating such dreary tension, that it makes him unique in contemporary Hungarian prose. The mystery is in how he manages to transubstantiate this naturalistic raw material into high quality literature. Tar possesses those unique traits of literary sensitivity, empathy, and solidarity, which enable him to hold up to us the elemental drama of these situations through reduction.” Strange as it sounds, the reference to mystery is justified when encountering the subtleness of Our Street, since the devil of its prose truly hides in the details.
Tar’s economical style inhabits the intersecting, ambiguous realms of sharp realism, cyclical absurd, and genuine comedy. His protagonists are characterized by a sense of intertwined ridiculousness and tragedy that marked the fates of Charles and Emma Bovary. This protracted ambivalence both draws readers in through empathy and detaches them through humor.
Danuta Kean at The Guardian:
An 11-year-old boy called Malcolm Polstead – who lives in an inn on the banks of the river Thames in Oxford – will be at the centre of the first volume of Philip Pullman’s hotly anticipated new trilogy. The Book of Dust will be a companion trilogy to his global bestselling series His Dark Materials. Details of the first instalment, La Belle Sauvage, were revealed on Friday by Pullman’s publishers Penguin Random House Children’s and David Fickling Books.
An exclusive extract from the long-awaited novel has been published on the Guardian’s website, and will be printed in Saturday’s paper. Taken from chapter 10 of the new novel, available worldwide from 19 October, the extract finds one of the central characters from His Dark Materials, Lord Asriel, attempting to persuade Malcolm to let him see his infant daughter Lyra. The latter is being sheltered from the nobleman by nuns at Godstow Priory, near Oxford, after Asriel was convicted of murder.
Fans of the original series will be pleased to find that Asriel is as commanding a presence as he was in Northern Lights, the book that launched the original trilogy in 1995. The nobleman is accompanied by the snow leopard Stelmaria, his menacing “daemon”, as the animal embodiments of humans’ inner lives are called in the books.
The writer Denis Johnson died yesterday. This is a little something I wrote about his book The Laughing Monsters three years ago. It was published at Good Letters:
On the back cover of Denis Johnson’s new novel The Laughing Monsters is a rather extraordinary quote by David Means. Means was reviewing Johnson’s short novel, Nobody Move, for the New York Times Sunday Book Review in 2009.
The sentence from the quote that struck me in particular is that Johnson “routinely explores the nature of crime—all his novels have it in one form or another—in relation to the nature of grace (yes, grace) and the wider historical and cosmic order.”
Crime, grace, and the wider historical and cosmic order. A novel by Johnson is, then, according to Means, practically the Bible. Maybe better.
Of course, David Means is pretty sure we will not believe him. That’s why he mentions grace twice.