Sunday Poem

The Light Gatherer

When you were small, your cupped palms
each held a candleworth under the skin, enough light to begin,
                                and as you grew,
light gathered in you, two clear raindrops
in your eyes,
                               warm pearls, shy,
in the lobes of your ears, even always
the light of a smile after your tears.
Your kissed feet glowed in my one hand,
or I’d enter a room to see the corner you played in
lit like a stage set,
                         the crown of your bowed head spotlit.
When language came, it glittered like a river,
silver, clever with fish,
                       and you slept
with the whole moon held in your arms for a night light
where I knelt watching.
                            Light gatherer. You fell from a star
into my lap, the soft lamp at the bedside
mirrored in you,
                                   and now you shine like a snowgirl,
a buttercup under a chin, the wide blue yonder
you squeal at and fly in,
                                   like a jeweled cave,
turquoise and diamond and gold, opening out
at the end of a tunnel of years.

by Carol Ann Duffy

The Medicis in the desert

Nicholas Pelham in More Intelligent Life:

When Muhammad bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince, visited New York earlier this year, the face of Ahmed Mater, the kingdom’s most celebrated artist, was beamed onto an enormous billboard in Times Square. In recent years, he has been feted at exhibitions in London, New York and Venice. He dominates the Saudi art scene so thoroughly that his peers struggle for attention. “He’s the only artist anyone writes about,” says one Saudi curator. In 2017 Mater was appointed as artistic director of the Prince’s cultural and educational foundation, entrusted to promote art across the kingdom and liberalise the school system. He plays a crucial role in the enormously ambitious plan for economic and social transformation, which aims to wean the country off reliance on oil revenues, strip down the power of clerics and dispel a reputation for medieval obscurantism and misogyny.

Prince Muhammad has travelled the world to convince business leaders, tech titans and entertainment impresarios that Saudi Arabia is a place where both popular and high culture can flourish. For the first time in over 30 years, cinemas show films. For the first time ever, pop stars perform in concert halls. Mater has accompanied the prince on his pilgrimage as the epitome of the country’s artistic reawakening. When the Saudi Crown Prince met Xi Jinping, he brought Mater along and gave the Chinese president one of his paintings as a gift. The story behind Mater’s rise is more complex and ambiguous than his current pre-eminence suggests. It illuminates the unprecedented liberalisation that many of the country’s cultural elite are experiencing at the moment, as well as the compromises with power that they must still make. Mater did not reach the pinnacle without help. But some of his companions have fallen by the wayside. “Of course”, one Saudi artist tells me, “it wouldn’t have happened without Ashraf.”

More here.

An English woman’s love affair with Kerry

Sue Hubbard in The Irish Times:

I lost my heart from the moment I first saw it. Cill Rialaig is about as far west as you can go in Europe without falling off the edge. A magical place set in a wild landscape full of ghosts and memories, it’s a pre-famine village that clings to a steep slope, 300ft above the sea in Kerry, on the west coast of Ireland.

In winter the sea boils and rages against the cliffs as storms sweep in from the Atlantic. Hugging the hillside, it looks southwest towards the Béara Peninsula and the tiny uninhabited islands of Scariff and Deenish, and eastward beyond Waterville to MacGillycuddy’s Reeks. At the right time of year, you might see seals or, if you are lucky, a leatherback turtle. Abandoned by the inhabitants, the collapsed cottages – a few refurbished, now, to create an artists’ retreat – stare out to sea like a collection of grieving widows. The one-time fields and tillage-plots that lie on either side of the road are half hidden by rocks and boulders. Criss-crossed by drystone walls, they are full of spongy tussocks of boggy grass, gorse and bracken. Grazing sheep, marked with the Day-Glo blue and pink dyes of their owners, shimmy up the hill, wiggling their backsides like muddy go-go dancers.

As the mist comes in, settling over the headland like a white duvet, and the rain beats against the windows in the winter gales, it’s not difficult to imagine how hard life must have been up here. Unlike other parts of Europe, the plough was unknown, and the cultivation of the staple, potatoes, was dependent on the spade.

More here.

Scientists to grow ‘mini-brains’ using Neanderthal DNA

Hannah Devlin in The Guardian:

Scientists are preparing to create “miniature brains” that have been genetically engineered to contain Neanderthal DNA, in an unprecedented attempt to understand how humans differ from our closest relatives.

In the next few months the small blobs of tissue, known as brain organoids, will be grown from human stem cells that have been edited to contain “Neanderthalised” versions of several genes.

The lentil-sized organoids, which are incapable of thoughts or feelings, replicate some of the basic structures of an adult brain. They could demonstrate for the first time if there were meaningful differences between human and Neanderthal brain biology.

“Neanderthals are the closest relatives to everyday humans, so if we should define ourselves as a group or a species it is really them that we should compare ourselves to,” said Prof Svante Pääbo, director of the genetics department at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, where the experiments are being performed.

Pääbo previously led the successful international effort to crack the Neanderthal genome, and his lab is now focused on bringing Neanderthal traits back to life in the laboratory through sophisticated gene-editing techniques.

More here.

Anatomy of a Pogrom

Steven J. Zipperstein in Tablet:

It began inconspicuously, as so many riots do. People jostled in a sparsely policed public square lined with Jewish-owned shops. Worshippers idled after Easter services at the nearby Ciuflea Church, some drinking steadily once services ended, and teenagers as well as Jews—restless near the end of the long, eight-day Passover festival—were all rubbing shoulders. The weather was suddenly and blissfully temperate, dry after intermittent rain.

Soon it would be commonplace to juxtapose the pogrom’s horrors and its benign springtime weather. Bialik, too, would do much the same in “In the City of Killing,” while also highlighting the buoyant expectations that surfaced for Jews at the start of a fresh new century viewed against the obscenity of Kishinev’s butchery.

Details of these terrible spring days, with their changes from moist to warm, would figure among the cascade of information, small and large, amassed by teams of reporters, Jewish activists, political radicals, well-known writers, philanthropists, lawyers, and civil servants in the months following the pogrom.

More here.

Dear iPhone—It Was Just Physical, and Now It’s Over

Katie Reid in Nautilus:

As a kid, I’d sometimes try to imagine what life would be like without a particular sense or part of my body, like with questions from the Would You Rather? game. Would you rather be deaf or blind? Would you rather have no legs or no arms? I’d try to erase the sound of my mom’s piano playing, the sight of the ground growing smaller as I soared on the tree swing in my backyard, or the feeling of playing basketball so hard my lungs might explode, but I just couldn’t. How could life go on without these sensations that were so tied to my idea of what it meant to be alive? I guess I’ve been feeling extra contemplative and nostalgic these days because I recently went through a pretty significant break-up…with my smartphone. My relationship with my phone was unhealthy in a lot of ways. I don’t remember exactly when I started needing to hold it during dinner or having to check Twitter before I got out of bed in the morning, but at some point I’d decided I couldn’t be without it. I’d started to notice just how often I was on my phone—and how unpleasant much of that time had become—when my daughter came along, and, just like that, time became infinitely more precious. So, I said goodbye. Now, as I reflect on the almost seven years my smartphone and I spent together, I’m starting to realize: What I had with my phone was largely physical.

Cognitive scientists have long debated whether objects in our environment can become part of us. Philosophers Andy Clark and David Chalmers argued in their 1998 paper “The Extended Mind” that when tools help us with cognitive tasks, they become part of us—augmenting and extending our minds. Today the idea that phones specifically are extensions of ourselves is receiving a lot of recent attention. In February, in Aeon, philosopher Karina Vold explored the legal implications of applying the extended mind theory to our smartphones. If the extended mind view is correct, she writes, then smartphones would merit recognition “as a part of the essential toolkit of the mind.” Last month, in a fascinating New Yorker profile of Clark, Larissa MacFarquhar wrote that Clark thinks “we are all cyborgs, in the most natural way. Without the stimulus of the world, an infant could not learn to hear or see, and a brain develops and rewires itself in response to its environment throughout its life. Any human who uses language to think with has already incorporated an external device into his most intimate self, and the connections only proliferate from there.” For Clark, MacFarquhar continues, “The more devices and objects there are available to foster better ways of thinking, the happier he is.”

I agree with the theory, if not Clark’s sunny outlook on its implications. (More on that later.) However, when it comes to the most widely useful of modern-day tools—the smartphone—both of these recent articles overlook a key component of the extended self: embodiment. Our devices aren’t just extensions of our minds, they’re extensions of our bodies too. Clark ventures into embodiment in his 2008 book, Supersizing the Mind, in which he spends half of the first chapter discussing how bodies and senses adapt to external technology. From a monkey learning to master a robotic arm to the familiar process of “body babbling,” in which infants learn, through practice, how neural commands control certain bodily movements, Clark shows that the ability to incorporate new objects into our bodies is part of how we’re designed:

Because bodily growth and change continue, it is simply good design not to permanently lock in knowledge of any particular configuration but instead to deploy plastic neural resources and an ongoing regime of monitoring and recalibration.

I experienced that recalibration when I got my first smartphone in 2011.

More here.

Saturday Poem

At the Back of Progress

The fellow who sits in the air-conditioned office 
is the one who in his youth raped 
a dozen or so young girls, 
and, at cocktail parties, is secretly stricken with lust,
fastening his eyes on lovelies’ bellybuttons. 

In five-star hotels, 
he tries out his different sexual tastes
with a variety of women,
then returns home and beats his wife 
because of an over-ironed handkerchief or shirt collar. 

In his office Mr. Big puffs on a cigarette,
shuffles through files,
rings for his employee
demands tea, 
and returns to writing people’s character references.

His employee speaks in such a low voice 
that no one would ever suspect 
how, at home, he also raises his voice,
is vile to his family
but with his buddies on the porch or at a movie
indulges in loud harangues on politics,
art, literature, and how some female –
his mother, grandmother, or great-grandmother –
committed suicide.

Bidding goodbye to his buddies,
he returns home,
beats his wife
over a bar of soap
or the baby’s pneumonia.

Next day, at work, he pleasantly brings the tea,
keeps the lighter in his pocket,
receives a tip of a couple of taka,
and tells no one that he divorced his first wife for her sterility,
his second for giving birth to a daughter,
his third for not bringing a sufficient dowry.
Now, with wife number four, he again has someone:
To beat over a green chili or a handful of rice. 

by Taslima Nasrin
from The Vintage Book of Contemporary World Poetry
Vintage Books, 1996

‘North Station’ by Bae Suah

Jean Yoon at The Quarterly Conversation:

Bae Suah seems to know that writing is a kind of time travel, and in each of these stories, brought deftly into English by Deborah Smith, the caroming and hyperlinking movements that characterize this traveling raise such questions as: what does it demand of me when I reach out to you? Where does my memory of you end and your reality begin? Why do I remember only that which I remember? And, as I write all of this, do I move any closer toward the answers?

In “North Station,” a man and a woman, hand on hand, anxiously await a train at the eponymous platform. Their anticipation is so high that it frays and tears at the sensory reality and temporality of the scene, such that “if a blind and disoriented pigeon were to nose-dive in front of them, they would mistake it for a passing train—the train they will have missed, the train they will have failed to catch.”

more here.

May 1968: the revolution retains its magnetic allure

John Harris at The Guardian:

We are now as far from the events of 1968 as the people involved were from the end of the first world war. Cliche has long since reduced much of what occurred to “student revolt”, but that hardly does these happenings justice, partly because it ignores the workers’ strikes that were just as central to what occurred during ’68 and the years that followed, but also because the phrase gets nowhere near the depth and breadth of what young people were rebelling against, not least in France.

This was the last time that a developed western society glimpsed the possibility of revolution focused not just on institutions, but the contestation of everyday reality, which is still enough to make the simple phrase “May 1968” crackle with excitement – even if you were not around when les évenéments took place. I was born in 1969, but what happened in France and beyond retains a magnetic allure.

more here.

A Poet of the Archives: On Susan Howe

Emily LaBarge at Bookforum:

For some readers, Howe’s work seems inscrutable or obtuse—obscure for the sake of difficulty as a kind of meaning in itself. Indeed, the poems stand awkwardly as individual works, and are best read as a volume. Taken as such, they offer a rewarding route to how one might construct a life—and a life’s work—from diving into language, the past, archival sources, and visual art. There is freedom in vastness and there is always more—more ideas, more ways of speaking and hearing, listening and knowing—to be found. Howe convinces us that intuited connections are real and possess a logic of their own, and that supposed breaks in continuity, in history or associations or sentences, are often the very place we should look to forge new connections. To stutter, to recombine or pull apart phonemes and line breaks, to wrench metaphors and to wrongly employ words, to cut and paste texts in images, shapes, lines, is to uncover so much possibility. Most critically, it is to admit and to relish the fact that we do not know all the ways in which we do not know—to be open to the grace of “not being in the no.”

more here.

Joseph Conrad and the violence of civilization

Greg Grandin in The Nation:

“I am glad you’ve read the Heart of D. tho’ of course it’s an awful fudge,” Joseph Conrad wrote to Roger Casement in late 1903. Casement, an Irish diplomat working for the British Foreign Office, had just returned to London from Belgium’s African colony, the Congo Free State, and was about to submit a report to Parliament detailing the existence of a vast system of slavery used to extract ivory and rubber. Looking to draw public attention to the atrocities, Casement traveled to the author’s home outside London to attempt to recruit him into the Congo Reform Association. Conrad was sympathetic: Africa, he told Casement, shared with Europe “the consciousness of the universe in which we live,” and it had been difficult for him to learn that the horrors he witnessed on his 1890 trip up the Congo River had only gotten worse. But he resisted playing the part of an on-the-spot authority and begged off joining Casement’s association. “I would help him but it is not in me,” Conrad later explained to a friend. “I am only a wretched novelist inventing wretched stories and not even up to that miserable game.”

More here.

The Scientific Paper Is Obsolete

James Somers in The Atlantic:

The scientific paper—the actual form of it—was one of the enabling inventions of modernity. Before it was developed in the 1600s, results were communicated privately in letters, ephemerally in lectures, or all at once in books. There was no public forum for incremental advances. By making room for reports of single experiments or minor technical advances, journals made the chaos of science accretive. Scientists from that point forward became like the social insects: They made their progress steadily, as a buzzing mass.

The earliest papers were in some ways more readable than papers are today. They were less specialized, more direct, shorter, and far less formal. Calculus had only just been invented. Entire data sets could fit in a table on a single page. What little “computation” contributed to the results was done by hand and could be verified in the same way.

The more sophisticated science becomes, the harder it is to communicate results. Papers today are longer than ever and full of jargon and symbols. They depend on chains of computer programs that generate data, and clean up data, and plot data, and run statistical models on data. These programs tend to be both so sloppily written and so central to the results that it’s contributed to a replication crisis, or put another way, a failure of the paper to perform its most basic task: to report what you’ve actually discovered, clearly enough that someone else can discover it for themselves.

Perhaps the paper itself is to blame.

More here.

Are You in a BS Job? In Academe, You’re Hardly Alone

David Graeber in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

I would like to write about the bullshitization of academic life: that is, the degree to which those involved in teaching and academic management spend more and more of their time involved in tasks which they secretly — or not so secretly — believe to be entirely pointless.

For a number of years now, I have been conducting research on forms of employment seen as utterly pointless by those who perform them. The proportion of these jobs is startlingly high. Surveys in Britain and Holland reveal that 37 to 40 percent of all workers there are convinced that their jobs make no meaningful contribution to the world. And there seems every reason to believe that numbers in other wealthy countries are much the same. There would appear to be whole industries — telemarketing, corporate law, financial or management consulting, lobbying — in which almost everyone involved finds the enterprise a waste of time, and believes that if their jobs disappeared it would either make no difference or make the world a better place.

Generally speaking, we should trust people’s instincts in such matters. (Some of them might be wrong, but no one else is in a position to know better.) If one includes the work of those who unwittingly perform real labor in support of all this — for instance, the cleaners, guards, and mechanics who maintain the office buildings where people perform bullshit jobs — it’s clear that 50 percent of all work could be eliminated with no downside.

More here.

Water is Pakistan’s Biggest Security Challenge: An Interview with Adil Najam

From Pakistan Politico:

Prof. Adil Najam is the founding Dean of Boston University’s School of International Affairs, the Pardee School. He was the former Vice Chancellor of the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS). Dr. Adil Najam was the Lead Author of the second and third reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), work for which the IPCC was awarded the Nobel Award in 2006. His research spans a range on international policy issues, including environment and development, climate change, human security and human development, global governance, and higher education, among others. Pakistan Politico in an exclusive interview ask Dr. Najam about the climate security nexus.

Could you shed some light on why you chose to do some academic work on a less-talked about constituent of national security, especially at a time when kinetic and other security-related factors are dominating academia and media?

My concern about the climate-security link comes from the security side of the equation, much more than from the climate or environment side. The single most important question that should occupy the attention of anyone studying security is: What or who is making us insecure? How? And, what can be done about it?

The moment you confront this question honestly and seriously, you come to the realization that the so-called ‘traditional’ security discourse, while critically important, is also incomplete. To ignore non-traditional dimensions of security is, in fact, to make the modern state less secure, including on national security. This led me to my 2003 book “Environment, Development and Human Security” and has now, fifteen years later, brought me back to the question of climate and security in Pakistan in a research project I am doing along with my BU Pardee School colleague Henrik Selin.

More here.

How does the brain give rise to consciousness?

Eliezer J. Sternberg in the Washington Post:

Three decades after being awarded the Nobel Prize for his discovery of DNA, Francis Crick wrote a book about consciousness, “The Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul.” It was momentous: A world-renowned scientist had decided to directly confront the mind/body problem, the centuries-old challenge of reconciling the brain, a gelatinous mass of physical tissue, and human consciousness, the realm of emotion, volition and boundless imagination. Crick’s contention that the human mind arises from neurons in the brain rather than from an ineffable soul is perhaps less astonishing today, when this premise is nearly universally accepted among neuroscientists. But it still hints at something remarkable about Crick’s own mind. Why would a Nobel-winning scientist, already credited with discovering the secret of life, decide to switch gears and focus on an inquiry not only in a different field but so scientifically impenetrable as to have earned nicknames like “the hard problem” and “the last great mystery of science?” Crick answered this question with “what I called the gossip test: What you’re really interested in is what you gossip about. Gossip is things you’re interested in, but you don’t know much about.” In short: genuine curiosity.

As one of the greatest neuroscientists living today, Michael S. Gazzaniga could have similarly rested on his laurels. He helped craft the modern understanding of the differences between the cerebral hemispheres.

More here.

Friday Poem

In Heaven

No dog chained to a spike in a yard of dying
grass like the dogs
I grew up with, starving, overfed, punched in the face
by children, no children, no firecrackers
slipped down the long throats of bottles in the first days of
no sky exploding, no blood, no bones
because we were the bones, no more Lord
my God, or maps made of fire, a small blaze burning
right where I grew up, so I could,
if I wanted to, point to the flame that was 82nd Avenue,
no milk in the fridge, no more walking through the street
to the little store
that sold butterfly knives, no more knives, no more honey
now that all the sweetness is gone, though we were the sweetness,
though we needed something
for our tongues, no more cheap soap, no more
washing our mouths out
because Motherfucker and because Fuck Off
came swimming out of us like fish from the Pacific Ocean,
no hummingbirds, no Band-Aids, no scraped knees
with the dirt and rock from the neighborhood
because we were the dirt,
no young mothers smoking cigarettes on the porch
while the sky got pretty
before night came on, though they were prettier
and the sky turned against them. No punk rock, no prom,
no cheap high heels left in the rain
in a parking lot, no empty bottles of wine coolers
because we were the empty bottles, no throwing them against the
behind the school because we were the glass
that was shattering. No more looking toward the west, no east, no
or south, just us standing here together, asking each other
if we remember anything, what we loved, what loved us, who
yelled our names first?

by Matthew Dickman
from Mayakovsky’s Revolver
Norton, 2017

Lithuania’s Separate Path

Andrea Pipino at Eurozine:

View of Neris river with Green bridge and the Church of the St Raphael the Archangel, Vilnius, Lithuania.

To try to get at the complexity of Lithuania, a precious tool is surely Magnetic NorthConversations with Tomas Venclova, edited by the translator and literary critic Ellen Hinsey and recently published by the University of Rochester, in the United States: it’s a dialogue almost four hundred pages long with the most important poet of this Baltic country, a dissident, intellectual, exile and in some ways the critical conscience of almost a century of Lithuanian history.

Still little translated elsewhere in Europe, Venclova was born in 1937 in Kaunas, then the capital of independent Lithuania, and went through the second two-thirds of the twentieth century observing and experiencing at first hand the violence of war, the Shoah and the years of Soviet occupation.

more here.