Martin Luther’s Burning Questions

Ingrid Rowland in The New York Review of Books:

Rowland_2-060817On 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.

More here.

Spiders appear to offload cognitive tasks to their webs, making them one of a number of species with a mind that isn’t fully confined within the head

Joshua Sokol in Quanta:

Spider_01-2880x1620Millions 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.]

Google’s AI Is Now Creating Its Own AI

From IFL Science:

Extra_large-1495463917-cover-imageGoogle’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.

More here.

The Return of the Repressed


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.

More here.


Our-street-tar 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.

more here.

Philip Pullman offers first look at His Dark Materials follow-up

4687Danuta 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.

more here.

denis johnson (1949 – 2017)

ContentThe 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.

more here.

Denis Johnson’s Poetic Visions of a Fallen World

Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times:

WorldIn one of the rare interviews he did, the fiction writer and poet Denis Johnson — who died on Wednesday at 67 — was asked about his craft, and he quoted these lines from Joseph Conrad: “My task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word to make you hear, to make you feel — it is, before all, to make you see. That — and no more, and it is everything.” In his own novels and poems, Mr. Johnson fulfilled that task with extraordinary savagery and precision. He used his startling gift for language to create word pictures as detailed and visionary, and as varied, as paintings by Edward Hopper and Hieronymus Bosch, capturing the lives of outsiders — the lost, the dispossessed, the damned — with empathy and unsparing candor. Whether set in the bars and motels of small-town America, or the streets of wartime Saigon, his stories depict people living on the edge, addicted to drugs or adrenaline or fantasy, reeling from the idiocies and exigencies of modern life, and longing for salvation.

…Mr. Johnson’s America, past or present, is uncannily resonant today. It’s a troubled land, staggering from wretched excess and aching losses, a country where dreams have often slipped into out-and-out delusions, and people hunger for deliverance, if only in the person of a half-baked messiah. Reason is in short supply here, and grifters and con men peddling conspiracy thinking and fake news abound; families are often fragmented or nonexistent; and primal, Darwinian urges have replaced the rule of law. And yet, and yet, amid the bewilderment and despair, there are lightning flashes of wonder and hope — glimpses of the possibility of redemption. In “Tree of Smoke,” “The Stars at Noon” (1986) and “The Laughing Monsters” (2014), America seems to have exported some of its native-born madness — limning what Mr. Johnson saw as the country’s military or cultural colonization of large swaths of the globe. Poverty and chaos multiply abroad, where the sun and the heat fuel a sense that the center cannot hold, that things are indeed falling apart.

More here.

Saturday Poem

Electric Elegy

—for Robert Hass

Farewell, German radio with your green eye
and your bulky box,
together almost composing
a body and soul. (Your lamps glowed
with a pink, salmony light, like Bergson's
deep self.)
Through the thick fabric
of the speaker (my ear glued to you as
to the lattice of a confessional), Mussolini once whispered,
Hitler shouted, Stalin calmly explained,
Bierut hissed, Gomulka held endlessly forth.
But no one, radio, will accuse you of treason;
no, your only sin was obedience: absolute,
tender faithfulness to the megahertz;
whoever came was welcomed, whoever was sent
was received.
Of course I know only
the songs of Schubert brought you the jade
of true joy. To Chopin's waltzes
your electric heart throbbed delicately
and firmly and the cloth over the speaker
pulsated like the breasts of amorous girls
in old novels.
Not with the news, though,
especially not Radio Free Europe or the BBC.
Then your eye would grow nervous,
the green pupil widen and shrink
as though its atropine dose had been altered.
Mad seagulls lived inside you, and Macbeth.
At night, forlorn signals found shelter
in your rooms, sailors cried for help,
the young comet cried, losing her head.
Your old age was announced by a cracked voice,
then rattles, coughing, and finally blindness
(your eye faded), and total silence.
Sleep peacefully, German radio,
dream Schumann and don't waken
when the next dictator-rooster crows.

by Adam Zagajewski
Polish trans. Renata Gorczynski and
Benjamin Ivry & C.K. Williams

The Mughal emperor Aurangzeb is controversial not so much because of India’s past but rather because of India’s present

Audrey Truschke in

24565-yeechmzsox-1495601742In 1700, the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb was arguably the richest, most powerful man in the world. He ruled for nearly 50 years, from 1658 until 1707, over a vast empire in South Asia that boasted a population exceeding the entirety of contemporary Europe. Today, he has been forgotten in the West.

In modern-day India, however, Aurangzeb is alive in public debates, national politics, and people’s imaginations. From Mumbai to Delhi to Hyderabad, Indians debate his legacy and, overwhelmingly, condemn him as the cruelest king in Indian history. The list of charges against Aurangzeb is severe and, if they were all true, shocking. Aurangzeb, a Muslim, is widely thought to have destroyed thousands of Hindu temples, forced millions of Indians to convert to Islam, and enacted a genocide of Hindus. As I am reminded daily on Twitter, many Indians sincerely believe that Aurangzeb was Hitler and ISIS rolled into one with a single objective: To eradicate Hindus and Hinduism.

My narrative of Aurangzeb in Aurangzeb: The Life and Legacy of India’s Most Controversial King – based on extensive research and relying on primary source documents – does not match his current reputation.

More here.

Men Without Women

Lucy Scholes in The Independent:

Men-1I have something of a love/hate relationship with short stories. Too many mediocre offerings leave me despairing of the genre, but then a collection like Men Without Women comes along and all is forgiven, my faith restored in the recognition of how utterly perfect the medium can be – in the right hands. Haruki Murakami’s are talented indeed, each of the seven stories here (five of which have been previously published, four in TheNew Yorker and one in Freeman’s, while the remaining two – “An Independent Organ” and “Men Without Women” are original compositions for this collection) a gem in and of its own right, but strung together they’re a sparkling strand of precious stones, the light refracted from each equally brilliant but the tones varying subtly. The collection’s central concern is loneliness. “You are a pastel-colored Persian carpet, and loneliness is a Bordeaux wine stain that won’t come out,” explains the narrator of the final story, speaking of the myriad “Men Without Women”, among whom he counts himself. These figures take on a different guise in each of the tales – a widowed actor, musing on his dead wife’s affairs; a student who couldn’t bring himself to go all the way with his girlfriend, pimping her out instead to his friend; a lovesick plastic surgeon who starves himself to death after reading a book about the Holocaust; a single man under some form of house arrest, sleeping with his housekeeper; a divorced man who begins life again as a lonely barkeep; Kafka’s Gregor Samsa, transformed from insect into man, finding his feet in an unfamiliar world and thrown off them again by sexual desire; and a man whose girlfriends keep committing suicide.

They’re more than simply men without women though, they recognise an impossible gulf between the sexes – “I don’t think we can ever understand all that a woman is thinking,” Kafuku the actor declares – and how this connects to absences in their own identity: the doctor who wants to “reduce himself to nothing”; the bar-owner who feels disconnected from reality, fearful that he “doesn’t exist”; the student who professes to be someone he isn’t by means of an acquired accent; Kafuku who pretended all was well with his marriage. The prose clear and refined – not to mention seamlessly translated from the original Japanese by Philip Gabriel and Ted Goossen – the unassuming quietness of these stories doesn’t mean they don’t hit home with when they need to, whether it’s by means of a single arresting sentence, the shock of a completely unanticipated eventuality – an otherwise sensible, cultured man refusing to eat, for example – or the lingering sense of expectant incompleteness that accompanies Scheherazade, in which a woman entertains her paramour with a striking post-coital story of obsession and desire from her teenage days.

More here.

A new anthology of essays reconsiders Thomas Piketty’s “Capital”

20170520_FND000_0from The Economist:

“A MODERN Marx” was how The Economist described Thomas Piketty three years ago, when he was well on his way to selling more than 2m copies of “Capital in the Twenty-First Century”. It was meant as a compliment, mostly: as advice to take the analysis seriously, yet to treat the policy recommendations with caution. The book’s striking warning, of the creeping dominance of the very wealthy, looks as relevant as ever: as Donald Trump’s heirs mind his business empire, he works to repeal inheritance tax. But “Capital” changed the agenda of academic economics far less than it seemed it might. A new volume of essays reflecting on Mr Piketty’s book, published this month, prods economists to do better. It is not clear they can.

“After Piketty: The Agenda for Economics and Inequality”, edited by Heather Boushey, Bradford DeLong and Marshall Steinbaum, is a book by economists, for economists. In that it resembles “Capital” itself. Before he was an unlikely cultural icon, Mr Piketty was a respected empirical economist. He was best known as one of a group of scholars, among them Emmanuel Saez and Anthony Atkinson, who used tax data to track long-run inequality. In “Capital” these data became the basis for an ambitious theory of capitalism. Mr Piketty argued that wealth naturally accumulates and concentrates, so that familial riches are ever more critical to determining an individual’s success or failure in life. The extravagant inequality of the Gilded Age could return if no preventive action is taken.

more here.

The Age of Spectacle

CoverJonathan Meades at Literary Review:

Cities of spectacle are becoming this young century’s norm. The bling school of architecture is a global nostrum. Take Pekka Korpinen, until recently deputy mayor of Helsinki. He would like to see an example of jaw-dropping architecture in that city. Is the man blind? Has he not noticed Lars Sonck’s magnificent work? Ah, he wants something jaw-dropping and new. Unimaginative local politicians, borderline-criminal elected mayors, vain ‘philanthropists’, thick Rotarians, optimistic local-enterprise partnerships and regional development agencies determinedly assume that non-orthogonal, sculpturally outré new buildings will foster regeneration (whatever that is). If it worked in Bilbao it’ll work in Lille, Bremen and Malmö. But has it worked in Bilbao? Gehry reels off statistics to demonstrate the supposed benefits to the city of his creation but quite neglects to mention the considerable increase in poverty there since the museum was opened and the consequently greater dependence on income assistance. Dyckhoff doesn’t challenge him.

In an interesting early chapter, Dyckhoff traces the history of the idea of ‘gentrification’ and its stuttering progress over half a century. The term was coined in 1964 by the sociologist Ruth Glass. She observed at first hand the phenomenon of inner London being slowly rebourgeoised. She ascribed this shift to the coming of age of a generation of people, then in their late twenties and early thirties, who shunned the anti-urban bias of their parents and grandparents. These were often people who worked in what was not yet called the media: their just-about fictional analogues were the characters of Mark Boxer and Peter Preston’s ‘The String-Alongs’.

more here.

Athens: Rocking the Cradle of Democracy

Letter-from-AthensJohn Psaropoulos at The American Scholar:

In seven years of nearly continuous protests, this one was the most articulate. Some 400 speech therapists, occupational therapists, and child psychologists stood outside the Greek parliament in late January, calling on the government not to cut subsidies they receive from the national health system. The protesters—well dressed, middle class, and highly educated, many of them at universities in the United Kingdom and the United States—were not the sort who generally take to the streets. And yet, so angry were they with the government that they marched out into traffic, led by a stray dog that had instinctively placed itself at the head of the column, and paraded their banners and slogans across the center of town, from Syntagma Square to the doors of the Ministry of Health. Given the makeup of the crowd, the elocution on display was unusually refined that day. “For no reason, for no cause do we demean speech therapy,” the protesters chanted in rhyming, scanning Greek. “There is no therapy for austerity,” read one banner. Ever since 2010, when the first of three austerity packages aimed at reducing the debt crisis was approved, Athenians have grown accustomed to routine disruptions. At least at this protest the entire street wasn’t cordoned off, as happens every few days for larger demonstrations. Motorists simply weaved their way around.

The Greek government pays for less than half of a child’s therapy costs, but that subsidy still means treatment for thousands of families. The health budget has been in free fall for years; this year alone, it has plummeted by €129 million, and since 2009, the reduction has amounted to 35 percent.

more here.

Friday Poem

Theater Impressions

For me a tragedy's most important act is the sixth:
the resurrecting from the stage's battlegrounds,
the adjusting of wigs, of robes,
the wrenching of knife from breast,
the removing of noose from neck,
the lining up among the living
to face the audience.

Bows solo and ensemble:
the white hand on the heart's wound,
the curtsey of the lady suicide,
the nodding of the lopped-off head.

Bows in pairs:
fury extends an arm to meekness,
the victim looks blissfully into the hangman's eyes,
the rebel bears no grudge as he walks beside the tyrant.

The trampling of eternity with the tip of a golden slipper.
The sweeping of morals away with the brim of a hat.
The incorrigible readiness to start afresh tomorrow.

The entry in single file of those who died much earlier,
in the third, the fourth, or between the acts.
The miraculous return of those lost without a trace.
The thought that they've been waiting patiently backstage,
not taking off costumes,
not washing off makeup,
moves me more than the tragedy's tirades.

But truly elevating is the lowering of the curtain,
and that which can still be glimpsed beneath it:
here one hand hastily reaches for a flower,
there a second snatches up a dropped sword.
Only then does a third, invisible,
perform its duty:
it clutches at my throat.

Wislawa Szymborska
from The Vintage Book of Contemporary World Poetry
Vintage Books
translation: Krynski & Maguire

Tissue-independent cancer drug gets fast-track approval from US regulator

Heidi Ledford in The New York Times:

CancerThe US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has issued its first approval of a cancer drug that targets tumours with specific mutations, regardless of where in the body the tumour first took root. This deviates from the agency’s previous approach: although a drug’s use may have been linked to the presence of a particular molecular marker, the FDA still required individual approvals to deploy that drug based on the tumour's location. The announcement on 23 May expands the use of pembrolizumab, manufactured by pharmaceutical giant Merck & Co. of Kenilworth, New Jersey. The drug boosts the body’s ability to attack tumours by blocking a protein called PD-1, which normally holds the immune system in check. The FDA had previously approved pembrolizumab for use in several cancers, including lung and skin cancer. But physicians can now use it in any solid tumour that has a particular defect in its ability to repair damaged DNA.

Yet achieving this milestone has been more difficult than many cancer researchers initially expected. Despite early enthusiasm for the approach, researchers have come to respect the influence of a tumour’s location on its response to treatment, says cancer researcher René Bernards of the Netherlands Cancer Institute in Amsterdam. “It was a case of irrational exuberance,” he says. “When push comes to shove, the clinical responses were not that impressive.” Bernards speaks from experience. In 2010, researchers reported a successful trial of a drug called vemurafenib, which targets a mutated form of the protein B-RAF1. Subsequent studies found that the drug worked in 48% of melanomas with that mutation2. The results came as cancer genome sequencing efforts were gathering steam, building massive catalogues of mutations found across different cancers. The vemurafenib success fuelled hopes that the drug would work in other cancers with the same B-RAF mutation.

More here.

Boston Review Forum: Basic Income in a Just Society

Brishen Rogers in the Boston Review:

ScreenHunter_2708 May. 25 23.18“Amazon needs only a minute of human labor to ship your next package,” read a CNN headline last October. The company has revolutionized its warehouse operations using an army of 45,000 robots and other technologies. Previously workers known as “pickers” would walk among shelves to find goods. Now robots bring the shelves to them; pickers select goods, scan them, and put them into bins; after robots whisk the shelves away. A network of automated conveyer belts then sends the bins to “packers,” who spend just fifteen seconds on each, sealing boxes with tape that is automatically dispensed at the perfect length. “By the time you take an Amazon delivery off your stoop, walk into your home, find a pair of scissors and open the brown box,” the story intoned, “you’ve already spent nearly as much time handling the package as Amazon’s employees.”

The story is hardly exceptional. Each week, it seems, another magazine, book, or think tank sketches a dystopian near-future in which new technologies render most workers unnecessary, sparking widespread poverty and disorder. Delivery drivers, the thinking goes, will not be needed when there are drones or autonomous cars staffed by robots, and Starbucks baristas and fast food workers will be redundant when a tablet can take your order and a machine can prepare it. Some even envision more skilled jobs at stake: robots repairing our homes, caring for the elderly, or nursing patients back to health. As President Obama warned in his farewell address, “The next wave of economic dislocations . . . will come from the relentless pace of automation that makes a lot of good, middle-class jobs obsolete.”

An economic challenge of this magnitude requires ambitious solutions, and many in public debates have converged around a basic income. The idea is simple: the state would provide regular cash grants, ideally sufficient to meet basic needs, as a right of citizenship or lawful residency. Understood as a fundamental right, basic income would be unconditional, not means-tested and not contingent on previous or current employment.

More here.