Friday Poem

A Small Measure

stars are born, people die
more stars than people
by far reborn as stars

and more stars than grains of sand
the number of grains of sand?
(7.5 x 1018 grains of sand)

seven quintillion, five hundred-
quadrillion grains we believe
(give or take a few grains of sand)

the number of stars, 70 thousand million,
million, million stars (the same number
as molecules in ten drops of water)

so there are more worlds
in eleven of your teardrops
than stars (or grains of sand)

by Paul Casey
from Poetry International, 2017

The Kafkaesque Process of Cancer Diagnosis

Paul Putora and Jan Oldenberg in Nautilus:

Cancer-a-239The date of diagnosis? Do you mean a specific day?” The well-mannered older man with advanced lung cancer sighs, pauses, takes off his glasses, strokes through his gray, cared-for beard, and looks at me as if trying to decide whether or not I will be able to follow his thoughts. “Kafkaesque! That's what it is, Kafkaesque.” He was obviously pleased with his exclamation, which to be honest, did not help me much. Looking in my eyes, he felt my uncertainty, sighed again, not in an unfriendly or arrogant manner, but perhaps with a bit of disappointment that I was unable to share his moment of delight at finding a fitting expression. Few tasks are more challenging than breaking bad news, especially if a patient seems reluctant to engage in conversation. Any question posed by a patient provides an opportunity to get started. What made this situation unusual is that the question referred only to the time of diagnosis. This lovable bibliophilic man introduced me to the particular atmosphere in Kafka's work: “…instances in which bureaucracies overpower people, often in a surreal, nightmarish milieu which evokes feelings of senselessness, disorientation, and helplessness.”

The patient continued, “You understand that the many tests and the elusive information of the recent weeks remind me of Franz Kafka's words in his famous work Der Prozess, meaning both trial and process.” “The verdict does not come suddenly, proceedings continue until a verdict is reached gradually.” Another way to translate the sentence from German would be: “The verdict does not come suddenly, the process gradually transforms into the verdict.” The patient went on. “First there was this cough, not unusual for me, but a bit more pronounced than in recent months. One day I had to consult my general physician after I had tripped and broken a rib. I think my process/trial started as my first x-ray touched the backlight in my GP's office.

“A ‘shadow’ was visible. A CT scan was ordered the same week. A ‘mass’ is described—in my right lower lung. “My physician advised me not to think too much before cytology results were available; samples would be taken the next day. Of course, I was absorbed by frightening scenarios, including a painful death. How could I avoid these thoughts after losing friends whose processes/trials started with shadows and masses and culminated in the verdict of a death sentence? My trial had begun—consuming my days and my thoughts.”

“…without having done anything wrong he was arrested one fine morning.”

More here.


Morgan Meis in The Porch:

ScreenHunter_2772 Jul. 27 17.07Every ghost story that has ever been told has its roots in existential panic. It is a panic we’ve all experienced at some time or other, generally in the wee hours when the mind turns to fear and death. The secret truth is that the ghost stories we tell later, once we’ve calmed down, are really a form of consolation. The stories serve to forestall our root fear by means of spooks and scares. The idea that there are spectres out there, many of them malevolent, is preferable to the alternative, which is that there is nothing “out there” at all. An evil spirit is, at least, confirmation of an afterlife, if an angry confirmation.

The scariest ghost story imaginable, then, would be a ghost story in which there is no ghost, in which there can be no ghosts, because there is only the abyss.

David Lowery’s new film A Ghost Story flirts at the edge of such an abyss. In the film, a young man (Casey Affleck) dies in a car crash, leaving his young wife (Rooney Mara) to mourn him. The young man, whose name we never learn, comes back in the form of a ghost. We know he’s a ghost because he is wearing a white sheet over his head. The white-sheeted ghost proceeds to “haunt” the house in which he previously lived. Eventually, his wife moves out. But the ghost stays. New tenants come and go. The ghost stays. The house is demolished and a giant office is built in its place. The ghost stays. The ghost is thrown back in time (just go with it) and experiences events at the same spot long before the house was built. Still, the ghost stays.

More here.

Google enters race for nuclear fusion technology

Damian Carrington in The Guardian:

2048Google and a leading nuclear fusion company have developed a new computer algorithm which has significantly speeded up experiments on plasmas, the ultra-hot balls of gas at the heart of the energy technology.

Tri Alpha Energy, which is backed by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, has raised over $500m (£383m) in investment. It has worked with Google Research to create what they call the Optometrist algorithm. This enables high-powered computation to be combined with human judgement to find new and better solutions to complex problems.

Nuclear fusion, in which atoms are combined at extreme temperatures to release huge amounts of energy, is exceptionally complex. The physics of nuclear fusion involves non-linear phenomena, where small changes can produce large outcomes, making the engineering needed to suspend the plasma very challenging.

“The whole thing is beyond what we know how to do even with Google-scale computer resources,” said Ted Baltz, at the Google Accelerated Science Team. So the scientists combined computer learning approaches with human input by presenting researchers with choices. The researchers choose the option they instinctively feel is more promising, akin to choosing the clearer text during an eye test.

More here.

The hidden friendship between Queen Victoria and her Indian servant Abdul

Radhika Sanghani in The Telegraph:

ScreenHunter_2771 Jul. 27 16.59It was on a family trip to the Isle of Wight’s Osborne House that Shrabani Basu discovered a secret that had lain untold since Queen Victoria’s death. The Indian journalist had taken her two teenage daughters with her to the former Queen’s palatial holiday home to witness the restored Durbar Room; an original banquet hall.

As Basu wandered through the house’s Indian wing, she couldn’t help notice several portraits and a bust of an Indian servant called Abdul Karim. “He didn’t look a servant,” explains Basu, 54, from her North London home. “He was painted to look like a nobleman. He was holding a book, looking sideways. Something that about that expression struck me, and when I moved along, I saw another portrait of him looking rather gentle. It was very unusual.”

At the time, in 2003, everything she knew about Queen Victoria’s Indian servants came from a book she had written on curry several years earlier – namely that the Queen had loved curry (chicken curry and daal being a particular favourite), and had servants from India who cooked it for her every lunchtime.

“It was in the back of my mind all along, so when I saw the portraits of Abdul, including a tableau of ladies serving him, I was intrigued,” says Basu. “I knew I had to look into this.”

More here.

How bosses are (literally) like dictators

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Elizabeth Anderson in Vox:

Consider some facts about how American employers control their workers. Amazon prohibits employees from exchanging casual remarks while on duty, calling this “time theft.” Apple inspects the personal belongings of its retail workers, some of whom lose up to a half-hour of unpaid time every day as they wait in line to be searched. Tyson prevents its poultry workers from using the bathroom. Some have been forced to urinate on themselves while their supervisors mock them.

About half of US employees have been subject to suspicionless drug screening by their employers. Millions are pressured by their employers to support particular political causes or candidates. Soon employers will be empowered to withhold contraception coveragefrom their employees’ health insurance. They already have the right to penalize workers for failure to exercise and diet, by charging them higher health insurance premiums.

How should we understand these sweeping powers that employers have to regulate their employees’ lives, both on and off duty? Most people don’t use the term in this context, but wherever some have the authority to issue orders to others, backed by sanctions, in some domain of life, that authority is a government.

We usually assume that “government” refers to state authorities. Yet the state is only one kind of government. Every organization needs some way to govern itself — to designate who has authority to make decisions concerning its affairs, what their powers are, and what consequences they may mete out to those beneath them in the organizational chart who fail to do their part in carrying out the organization’s decisions.

Managers in private firms can impose, for almost any reason, sanctions including job loss, demotion, pay cuts, worse hours, worse conditions, and harassment. The top managers of firms are therefore the heads of little governments, who rule their workers while they are at work — and often even when they are off duty.

More here.



Julianne Tveten and Paul Blest in Current Affairs:

To see why Silicon Valley policy-making would be so insidious, we should look at a plan that seems, on the surface, like one of its most progressive ideas: the tech community’s recent embrace of the “Universal Basic Income” (UBI). The idea of a UBI is that all people should be guaranteed a baseline income from the government, which would ensure that they can subsist and that nobody would be in dire poverty. It would be a truly universal guarantee, in that there would be no requirements for receiving it. The idea has long been a favorite of the left, since it would ensure the downward redistribution of wealth, based on criteria of need rather than “merit.”

But even though the UBI has often seemed like a utopian leftist pipe dream, in recent years it has picked up support in an unexpected place: Silicon Valley. A number of tech entrepreneurs have begun to publicly endorse it. Mark Zuckerberg has publicly signed on. And Y Combinator, the most prestigious and obnoxious of the Silicon Valley startup incubators, announced it would launch a local universal basic-income pilot program, giving monthly disbursements of $1,000 to $2,000 to 100 families throughout Oakland and seeing what happens after six months or a year.

That Silicon Valley—home of the callous libertarian billionaire—has come to embrace what’s traditionally viewed as a principle of leftist origin may seem contradictory. Why would a hotbed of private enterprise suddenly latch onto something that sounds an awful lot like socialism?

The answer lies in the concept’s malleability; there are many kinds of “UBI,” and the socialist UBI and the Silicon Valley UBI are not one and the same. One of them is an attempt to create a world of equality and prosperity for all. The other is an attempt to offer bare subsistence as a replacement for government programs, while leaving a fundamentally unequal economic and power structure fully in place.

More here.

The myth of the German jobs miracle


Matthew C Klein in the FT's Alphaville:

Christian Odendahl is one of the finest analysts of the German economy writing in English. So it’s worth your time to closely read his review of the country’s labour market reforms of the early 2000s, sometimes called “Agenda 2010” or the “Hartz Reforms”.

There’s lots to digest, from his finding that German real interest rates were significantly higher in 1999-2007 than in the other large Western economies to his observation that the impact of the reforms is often overstated because they happened to coincide with the end of Germany’s decade-long construction bust.

The most useful insight for policymakers elsewhere in the euro area is that Germany’s reforms in 2003-2005 can’t explain most of the interesting things that have happened in the German economy during its membership of the single currency. The features that prevented mass layoffs in 2008 were much older, for example.

But we want to highlight something else in Odendahl’s paper: his implication that Germany’s jobs growth is more myth than miracle.

Yes, the number of Germans listed as having a job has grown by about 15 per cent since the lows in the mid-1990s. But the total number of hours worked is less than 2 per cent higher over the same period and still significantly lower than in the early 1990s:

As Odendahl notes, this wouldn’t necessarily be a problem if an employment boom happened to coincide with a widespread desire to spend less time on the job.

More here.

Thursday Poem

The One-Piece Takeaway
Like so much that is necessary, the one-piece
takeaway is impossible. Only the half-divine,
the smooth-backswinged ones, those of the balanced
follow-through who keep their heads down,
always, almost, can do it. Yet, half-mortal, they
too can hit the golf ball out of bounds.
Their heavenly parents play no games. Why? each
shot a hole-in-one. But they watch us hackers,
curious, wondering that hardly a shot goes where we
plan – Oedipus wanting to heal the city, Odysseus
wanting to go home. They see our rare par or
rarer bird when the ball bounces off sprinkler head
towards the pin, and wonder why it is all so
hard for us, wonder at our strange joy.

by Nils Peterson
from Aethlon

Hunting for Morels, Finding a Mess

Christopher Schaberg in Guernica:

MushI'm walking through an aspen grove next to a steep ridge, looking up at the mossy bases of big ash trees. They have a shaggy, mottled look—evidence of the emerald ash borer beetles that have ravaged them over the past decade. Morel mushrooms grow near these trees, and they seem sparser with each year that passes, as dead ashes crisscross the forest floors. The white morels (which tend to look more gray or even yellow, depending on where you find them) are often thought to appear toward the end of the season; first, the elusive black morels appear. The locals usually say it’s cyclical, or that the mushrooms will adjust and find another sort of tree to live with. But everyone’s noticed a dearth of black morels this year. When I was young, I remember valleys carpeted with black morels. They were often petite, but always intricately sculptural and beautiful, gnomic and nestled between Jack in the Pulpit and trillium flowers. This year I found only five in a gravely patch that I recalled only moments before stumbling upon it, deep in the woods. Finding morels often works like this for me: I head out of the house with a vague sense of direction, but usually I don’t clue in to the exact spot I’m headed to until just before I’m on top of it. Then there is a flash of deep recollection or attunement, and I look down and there they are.

It’s early June as I write this; the season is effectively over. There are still a few morels to be found, but by this point they will most likely be slug-nibbled and sun burned, way past their prime. While I heard a few rumors about big hauls of morels discovered in swampy areas, most people I talked to were left flummoxed by this year’s crop. People often tell stories about how these mushrooms are mysterious. Morels will hide and then show up almost whimsically in abundance, right before your eyes. Case in point: a couple of weeks ago I went on a two-hour walk looking for morels, ranging over some fairly remote areas of the national lakeshore that should have been bursting with mushrooms. But I didn’t find a single one. The following morning, I walked out of my front door to see a plump, fresh white morel popping out from between two rocks a foot away from the house, as if winking at me. As Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing writes in The Mushroom at the End of the World, “When gathering mushrooms, one is not enough; finding the first encourages me to find more.” Even after a fruitless hunt the day before, I am suddenly motivated to try again.

It’s especially fun to teach kids to hunt for morels. Children are literally closer to the ground, and once they learn to spot morels they can be astonishingly adept at picking them out of the dizzying patterns of leaves and ground cover. This year’s black morel scarcity invariably comes up when I’m talking to locals about how many they’ve found so far. (But never where. Morel hunters are notoriously cagey about their secret spots). One thing that hasn’t is the C word—or, rather, the CC words: climate change. No one has ventured that climate change might have something to do with the disappearance of the black morels. And, to be clear, I’m not at all sure that myself. Still, it is surprising that I haven’t heard the phrase uttered by the people I’ve talked to, who are saddened by the low turnout in what, by most accounts, was supposed to be a good spring for morels (cool, plenty of ground moisture, etc.).

More here.

In retrospect: Das Kapital

Gareth Stedman Jones:

KarlBy the mid-nineteenth century across Europe, the scientific and technological shifts behind the Industrial Revolution were extracting a heavy social and political price. Reports surfaced of the poverty and ill-health of town-dwellers, overcrowding, child labour and oppressive factory conditions. This 'social question' prompted widespread anxiety. Meanwhile, censorship, repression, the continued rule of aristocracies and the exclusion of the working classes from suffrage ignited mounting political discontent. Observing, analysing and synthesizing these changes was the Rhineland economist Karl Marx (1818–83). He codified concepts of labour, trade and the global market to explosive effect in Das Kapital, the first volume of which was published 150 years ago. The book's impact on economics, politics and current affairs has been formidable, and aspects of Marx's thinking have permeated areas of scientific research as disparate as robotics and evolutionary theory. Industrial revolutions, as Marx realized, relegate workers to the status of machine minders, and open the way to production that does not depend on human labour.

How to explain the infusion of Das Kapital's concepts into so many fields? Friedrich Engels, Marx's long-term collaborator and author of the groundbreaking 1845 The Condition of the Working Class in England, compared Das Kapital to the theory of evolution by natural selection, published eight years before. He wrote: “just as [Charles] Darwin discovered the law of development of organic nature, so Marx discovered the law of development of human history”. What is extraordinary about Das Kapital is that it offers a still-unrivalled picture of the dynamism of capitalism and its transformation of societies on a global scale. It firmly embedded concepts such as commodity and capital in the lexicon. And it highlights some of the vulnerabilities of capitalism, including its unsettling disruption of states and political systems. The election of Donald Trump, the vote for Brexit and the rise of populism in Europe and elsewhere can all be understood as indirect effects of shifts in the global division of labour — the relocation of key aspects of modern production away from Europe and the United States. That has been brought about by changes in what Marx identified as the capitalist enterprise's incessant drive to expansion.

More here.

Charles McGee’s Vibrant Art and the Beauty of Detroit

Morgan Meis in The New Yorker:

Recently, I spent an afternoon with the artist Charles McGee, at his home in Rosedale Park, a neighborhood in northwest Detroit. I was trying to understand the thinking behind his new mural downtown, titled “Unity,” which is a hundred and eighteen feet high and fifty feet wide, and which, as of May 31st, can be found on the side of a thirteen-story building at 28 West Grand River Avenue.

McGee showed me a couple of different drawings and mockups of the mural, which is entirely black-and-white. The composition is a complicated interweaving of dots and zigzags, lines, blocks of solid black, and indeterminate organic shapes. There are also representational elements, but it takes a couple of minutes of looking to pick them out. A snake slithers down the top-right section of the design. A small bird nestles beneath curly shapes. What had seemed to be a random collection of polka dots turns out, on closer inspection, to be, possibly, the hindquarters of a leopard.

Meis-Charles-McGee-Unity_02“Is this primarily an abstract work?” I asked McGee.

“No,” he said.

“You see it as representational, then?”


“A mix?”

“Not exactly.”

“Is this work about Detroit somehow?”

“Yes and no.”

“Are these designs coming from African art?”


“Do you see yourself as a black artist?”


“A Detroit artist?”


“An American artist?”


More here.

The Illuminating Geometry of Viruses

Jordana Cepelewicz in Quanta:

ScreenHunter_2770 Jul. 26 19.08More than a quarter billion people today are infected with the hepatitis B virus (HBV), the World Health Organization estimates, and more than 850,000 of them die every year as a result. Although an effective and inexpensive vaccine can prevent infections, the virus, a major culprit in liver disease, is still easily passed from infected mothers to their newborns at birth, and the medical community remains strongly interested in finding better ways to combat HBV and its chronic effects. It was therefore notable last month when Reidun Twarock, a mathematician at the University of York in England, together with Peter Stockley, a professor of biological chemistry at the University of Leeds, and their respective colleagues, published their insights into how HBV assembles itself. That knowledge, they hoped, might eventually be turned against the virus.

Their accomplishment has gained further attention because only this past February the teams also announced a similar discovery about the self-assembly of a virus related to the common cold. In fact, in recent years, Twarock, Stockley and other mathematicians have helped reveal the assembly secrets of a variety of viruses, even though that problem had seemed forbiddingly difficult not long before.

More here.

The Meaning of India’s ‘Beef Lynchings’

Supriya Nair in The Atlantic:

Lead_960One day in June, towards the end of Ramadan, two young Muslim brothers on a visit to Delhi to buy new clothes for Eid boarded a train to return home, three hours away. Soon, they became embroiled in a disagreement over seating with fellow passengers, which escalated into an argument over their religion. The other passengers taunted the boys, calling them “beef-eaters,” and pulling at their beards, one of the brothers later said. Eventually, the knives came out. By the time the train had passed the boys’ village, the assault was underway. Fifteen-year-old Junaid Khan was thrown out of the carriage one station past the boys’ stop; he had been stabbed multiple times, and was later declared dead at Civil Hospital in Palwal.

Within days, thousands were flooding the streets of India’s cities in protests sparked by Junaid’s murder, led by Indians aghast at an ever-lengthening list of violent crimes committed by Hindu mobs. Lynching is an old crime here, often committed against those of so-called lower castes and marginalized tribes, in order to reinforce brutal social hierarchies. But dozens of news reports over the last two years indicate a dramatic rise in a specific kind of mob murder: the so-called “beef lynchings” of Muslims.

Of all the social fault lines caused by cultural and religious sensitivities surrounding food in India, none cut deeper than beef and beef-eating.

More here.


Jeremy Scahill in The Intercept:

ScreenHunter_2769 Jul. 26 18.55EVEN AS PRESIDENT DONALD Trump faces ever-intensifying investigations into the alleged connections between his top aides and family members and powerful Russian figures, he serves as commander in chief over a U.S. military that is killing an astonishing and growing number of civilians. Under Trump, the U.S. is re-escalating its war in Afghanistan, expanding its operations in Iraq and Syria, conducting covert raids in Somalia and Yemen, and openly facilitating the Saudi’s genocidal military destruction of Yemen.

Meanwhile, China has quietly and rapidly expanded its influence without deploying its military on foreign soil.

A new book by the famed historian Alfred McCoy predicts that China is set to surpass the influence of the U.S. globally, both militarily and economically, by the year 2030. At that point, McCoy asserts the United States empire as we know it will be no more. He sees the Trump presidency as one of the clearest byproducts of the erosion of U.S. global dominance, but not its root cause. At the same time, he also believes Trump may accelerate the empire’s decline.

McCoy argues that the 2003 invasion of Iraq was the beginning of the end. McCoy is not some chicken little. He is a serious academic. And he has guts.

More here.