The Season of Savagery and Hope

by Ali Minai

April 2018: ‘Tis the Season of Giddiness in Democratlandia. Republicans are saddled with a widely despised President and riven by internal dissension. The Republican leadership in Congress is lurching from fiasco to fiasco – interrupted briefly by one great “success” on tax cuts. The zombie candidates of the Tea Party are still stalking establishment Republicans across the land. And, somewhere in his formidable fastness, the Great Dragon Mueller is winding up for the fiery breath that will consume the world of Trumpism like a paper lantern. And a Blue Wave – nay, a Tsunami – is headed towards the Republicans in Congress, looking to engulf them in November.

Time passes, and it is October. Anguish is all around. After snatching children from their parents and imprisoning them in cages, after giving a wet kiss to Kim Jong Un and worse to Putin, after having his former campaign manager convicted of crimes and his fixer plead guilty, after a virtual torrent of lies, after reports of a still devastated Puerto Rico and newly devastated Carolinas and Florida – after all this and more, Trump is more popular than ever in his presidency, Brett Kavanaugh is on the Supreme Court, and the Blue Wave is beginning to look more like an eddy. To be sure, Trump is still spectacularly unpopular compared to past presidents, with disapproval numbers at 50% of higher, but he seems to be rising. Rising! The very word is like a knell of doom. As Trump himself might say, “What the hell is going on?”

First of all, probably an over-reaction. A large part of US electoral outcomes can be ascribed to structural factors, such as the fact that 26 of the 50 states have conservative majority populations. Yes, these 26 states may add up to only 47% of the US population, but they elect 54% of the US Senate, and that cannot change. The number of reliably liberal states is much smaller – only 16 – and, though they account for 42% of the population, they only elect 32% of the Senate. The remaining 8 states – comprising 11% of the population – swing with the season, but supply 16% of the Senate. Thus, Democrats start off with a huge disadvantage in the Senate even in the best of times. Demographic forces will gradually change this situation, but slowly. Meanwhile, Democrats, as the liberal party, will always be facing the bitter choice of either accepting conservative senators in their own ranks or remaining a permanent minority in the Senate. Four decades of asymmetric political warfare has also left Republicans in control of most state houses, which they have used to gerrymander districts and pass laws to disenfranchise Democratic voters. That too is hard to change because these factors are custom-designed to perpetuate Republican majorities. But all is not lost for Democrats here. Read more »

Victor Weisskopf and the joy of scientific insight

by Ashutosh Jogalekar

Victor Weisskopf (Viki to his friends) emigrated to the United States in the 1930s as part of the windfall of Jewish European emigre physicists which the country inherited thanks to Adolf Hitler. In many ways Weisskopf’s story was typical of his generation’s: born to well-to-do parents in Vienna at the turn of the century, educated in the best centers of theoretical physics – Göttingen, Zurich and Copenhagen – where he learnt quantum mechanics from masters like Wolfgang Pauli, Werner Heisenberg and Niels Bohr, and finally escaping the growing tentacles of fascism to make a home for himself in the United States where he flourished, first at Rochester and then at MIT. He worked at Los Alamos on the bomb, then campaigned against it as well as against the growing tide of red-baiting in the United States. A beloved teacher and researcher, he was also the first director-general of CERN, a laboratory which continues to work at the forefront of particle physics and rack up honors.

But Weisskopf also had qualities that set him apart from many of his fellow physicists; among them were an acute sense of human tragedy and triumph and a keen interest in music and the humanities that allowed him to appreciate human problems and connect ideas from various disciplines. He was also renowned for being a wonderfully warm teacher. Many of these qualities are on full display in his wonderful, underappreciated memoir titled “The Joy of Insight: Passions of a Physicist”.

The memoir starts by describing Weisskopf’s upbringing in early twentieth century Vienna, which was then a hotbed of revolutions in science, art, psychology and music. The scientifically inclined Weisskopf came of age at the right time, when quantum mechanics was being developed in Europe. He was fortunate to study first at Göttingen which was the epicenter of the new developments, and then in Zurich under the tutelage of the brilliant and famously acerbic Wolfgang Pauli. It was Göttingen where Max Born and Heisenberg had invented quantum mechanics; by the time Weisskopf came along, in the early 1930s, physicists were in a frenzy to apply quantum mechanics to a range of well known, outstanding problems in nuclear physics, solid state physics and other frontier branches of physics. Weisskopf made important contributions to quantum electrodynamics which underlies much of modern physics. Read more »

Monday Poem


I wake sometimes at night, mouth
dry as the bottom of a cast iron skillet
in equatorial sun thinking, water!
imagining its absolute absence

yesterday on the iron bridge
I stopped dead center, leaned
and watched the slow river wrap itself
around a rock as rivers do, embracing 
the stubborn thing with eddies and waves
as it fell, pulled forward by its own weight
caressing, kissing, never stopping, touching 
with its passing, keeping, staying
for a moment in a backwash, in a pool—

letting go

I wake at night mouth dry
as the bottom of a cast iron skillet
in equatorial sun thinking,
Jim Culleny

On Not Knowing: An Introduction

by Emily Ogden

Unfitness to pursue our research in the unfathomable waters. —Herman Melville, Moby-Dick

What are the forms of unknowing? Ambivalence. Diffidence. The open mind. The broken mind. The mind faced with the sacred. Deprivation of an education. Naiveté—or is it just youth? Objectivity. Credulity. Amateurism. Anti-intellectualism. Forgetting. Willful forgetting. Receipt of mercy, as when we say, it’s better if she doesn’t know.

Neither good nor bad, neither innocent nor strategic, unknowing in itself belongs neither to the right, nor to the left, nor even to the clueless, privileged middle. Yet forces conspire of late to make unknowing, both posture and reality, look like the exclusive territory of the reactionary guard. I do not think progressives should cede their claim to this common property of ours. For a little while, then—never mind how long; I’m not sure yet—this column will concern unknowing: when and why one might value it.

I am aware of how untimely such a project may seem, may even be. The Trump administration’s aggressive, racialized ignorance has reached literally world-destroying proportions. Seemingly the one kind of expertise toward which the US president does not maintain open hostility is criminal defense litigation, and that’s of necessity. Republican voters take pride in their know-nothingism—see “I’m a Deplorable” bumper stickers—and their critics agree, calling them uneducated, in denial about their white supremacist sympathies, or both.

While campaigns like #bluelivesmatter and climate-change denial weaponize obtuseness, the left assumes a defensive crouch and draws tight the mantle of its enlightenment. What other choice is there? To enter certain conversations—as for example about abortion or rape—unsure of what you think is often to be judged conservative. Only slightly less often, it is actually to be so. And thus knowingness becomes at times an affected signal, and at other times a reliable sign, of progressive politics.

But—but. Aren’t there forms of unknowing one might want to protect, even prize? Read more »

Anglo-Saxon vs. French Vying for Control of English

by Gabrielle C. Durham

When you consume a meal, do you eat cow or beef? Yes, these are the same, especially considering where they end up, but we tend to think of the cow as the beginning of this particular process, and the beef as the product. More of these pairings include calf/veal, swine or pig/pork, sheep/mutton, hen or chicken/poultry, deer/venison, snail/escargot.

The question: Why are the “baser” elements of Anglo-Saxon origin, similar to our curse words, whereas the results typically have French roots? As you rush to beat me to the answer with your pupil’s sycophancy, it’s all about the Battle of Hastings in 1066. When the Normans, aka the French, beat the snot out of the English, or Anglo-Saxons, French words started creeping into the language. The Norman words were considered more sophisticated (as in, poultry is fancier than hen).

This applies to other, more vegan-friendly options as well, such as beverages. In this case, sophistication may not be the goal, but pretension is the indubitable result.

Many of my kindred (editors) try to replace the Latinate or Romantic words with Anglo-Saxon words. Is it a linguistic form of nationalism? Not really, although I don’t read alt-right writing, so I could be wrong. The goal is to simplify text, reducing gratuitous verbiage where possible. Or cutting spare words. See how that works? Read more »

Spirits of elsewhere

by Thomas O’Dwyer

Lawrence Durrell
Lawrence Durrell

When a plane lands at Larnaca in Cyprus, as it rolls past the control tower one can glimpse on a misty horizon the lone pyramid of Stavrovouni mountain. The ugly airport tower then obscures the steep mountain and the ancient monastery on its summit. It could be a metaphor for modernity obliterating the spirit of places that once seemed mysterious and eternal.

It’s an hour’s drive from the airport to the sprawling concrete capital Nicosia and up and over the green passes of the Kyrenia mountain range. Then it’s a right turn east along the northern Mediterranean coast to the hillside village of Bellapais. A remarkable 12th-century Gothic abbey dominates the village and a couple of Crusader castles brood on the mountain ridge high above it. Even the names carry a whiff of ancient Gothic Europe – Buffavento, Hilarion, Bellapais. Carob, mulberry and cypress trees crowd around the ruins as they did when knights roamed the hills.

A few hundred metres up a steep path from the abbey is a small house, once traditional, now modernised. The abbey and the cottage are responsible for the tawdry trinket shops and banal tourist cafes that have all but wiped out the old village tavernas. The splendid abbey is an obvious attraction, but the unremarkable cottage? For the literary-minded, it has an equal fascination. In it was written one of the great portraits of a city in 20th-century English literature. Here in the early 1950s Lawrence Durrell reimagined and immortalised Alexandria of Egypt. It joined the Dublin of James Joyce and the Paris of Marcel Proust in literary legend. Read more »

The Pull of the Now

by Joshua Wilbur 

Repetition, in itself, is neither good nor bad. Everything repeats. “Nature is an endless combination and repetition of very few laws,” said Emerson. Seasons come, and seasons go.

But what’s true for seasons isn’t true for people. We tend to prefer some forms of repetition to others. At its best, repetition is a great source of comfort and a precondition for mastering any task. The familiar rhythms of the Sunday church service are a balm to many, and it takes years of practice to throw a 98 mile-per-hour fastball that cuts in on a hitter’s hands at just the right moment.

At its worst, repetition means monotony and aimless toil: Sisyphus pushing his boulder up the hill for all eternity. Freud wrote of our “compulsion to repeat” the past, sensing that reenactment lies at the heart of everyday neuroticism, psychological trauma, and the most unnerving displays of madness—“All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy,” writes Jack Torrance, a thousand times over, in The Shining.

In between these two extremes—between the master and the madman—repetition provides the unglamorous but necessary foundation of daily life. It’s the soundtrack of childhood: brush your teeth, tie your shoes, finish your homework, eat your dinner, and so on. By the time a person reaches adulthood, she has internalized an incalculable number of habits: some good, some bad, but most avoiding the sureness of a positive or negative judgement. Thanks to our neurological adaptiveness, we are constantly slipping into patterns without realizing it, and the unrelenting expansion of consumer tech has only opened more avenues for our habitual instincts. Read more »

A Neurotic Introvert Looks At Personality

by Mary Hrovat

It could almost be a question on a very meta personality quiz: Do you prefer the Myers-Briggs typology or the Big Five personality traits? The Myers-Brigg Type Inventory is a popular tool that was developed outside of the scientific establishment by two women who did not have credentials in psychology. It’s qualitative rather than quantitative, and in the past decade or so, it’s been criticized as meaningless or unscientific. The Big Five taxonomy is widely accepted in academia and is the basis of much current personality research. It’s quantitative; in fact, it’s based on statistical analysis. Am I rejecting science if I continue to prefer the Myers-Briggs system as a key to understanding my own personality and those of others?

A quick refresher: the MBTI evaluates where you fall along four dimensions describing human preferences. Very roughly, these are introversion/extraversion, reliance mainly on sensory data or on interpretation, favoring intellectual analysis or feeling, and a preference for making decisions or for keeping options open. Your four-letter type identifies which end of each spectrum you are closest to; it doesn’t mean you’re 100% one or the other, but that you generally lean more toward one than the other.

A Big Five–based test, on the other hand, gives you a numerical score for each of five traits: openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. These traits emerged from lexical research in which words related to personality were extracted from an unabridged dictionary. The assumption behind the lexical approach is that languages will contains words to describe the aspects of personality that matter to people, and that the most important aspects will be captured by a single word. A statistical technique called factor analysis is applied to identify groups of words that are related. Several systems based on lexical analysis have been proposed since the first study using this technique appeared in 1936. Over time, the five traits we know today emerged from the analysis. Further research using psychological tests confirmed that people seem to be talking about the same things when they use each of these words. Each of the Big Five traits has specific aspects called facets. Read more »

The Battle for the ‘American Soul’

by Adele A Wilby

It is difficult to remember a time over recent decades when a president of the United States (US) has created so much controversy and division within the US and challenged its  credibility and standing  in international relations as has the incumbent president, Donald Trump. Indeed, so bewildering to many is the election of a former reality TV star and dubious businessman without experience in government, to the high office of president of the US and ‘leader’ of the ‘free’ world, a plethora of literature to account for such a phenomenon has emerged. Similarly, commentaries on evaluations of Trump’s calibre and character, and just how far he is fit for such high office and powerful position in global politics, are plentiful. Jon Meacham’s The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels can be viewed as a contribution to the literature on those issues.

Meacham is not concerned with examining the many sociological and economic factors that offer explanations as to why the American electorate put Trump in office, nor a critical examination of Trump’s suitability as president of the US. Instead, Meacham informs us Trump is not such an anomaly in terms of presidents of the US; ‘imperfection’, he reassures us, ‘is the rule not the exception’ insofar as US presidents are concerned. What differentiates Trump’s presidency from past imperfect presidents, in Meacham’s view, was their ability to dig deep into themselves and to rise above their personal views in the wider interests of the populace and the nation when required to do so, whereas Trump rarely has.

The history of the US, Meacham’s exposition reveals, is replete with presidents with nefarious political views and social practices that besmirch the US image of its own ‘exceptionalism’. Arguably, US ‘exceptionalism’ lies in the fact its founding fathers and past presidents, at crucial times in the nation’s history, challenged their own political views and veered on the side of social progress. Meacham reveals to us just how far US politics has historically epitomised a struggle between what he refers to as the ‘better angels’ and the ‘darker forces’ within past US presidents for it to emerge as the country it is today, until the election of Trump that is. However, Meacham reassures us that the ‘darker’ side of politics that Trump’s presidency represents for so many, will pass, and with the end of his time in office, the opportunity for the people to elect a president of a different calibre will occur again. How then does Meacham explain the assumption to office of Trump? Read more »

Bad Arguments On Bad Arguments: the Sokal Squared Hoax as an Unfortunate Cliché

by Jeroen Bouterse

James A. Lindsay, Helen Pluckrose, and Peter Boghossian

What do you prove by fooling somebody? What did Alan Sokal prove when he got his bogus paper on ‘quantum hermeneutics’ published in Social Text? What did Helen Pluckrose, James Lindsay and Peter Boghossian prove when they got several bogus papers published in several different journals?

Earlier this month three authors (to whom I will henceforth refer as ‘PLB’) published an exposé in Areo Magazine in which they explained how and why they had tricked several academic journals into accepting or seriously considering for publication hoax articles. The hoax articles often defend ideas that PLB themselves consider to be highly unethical, such as equating privately conducted masturbation with sexual violence, or calling for training men like we train dogs. The journals in question apparently condoned these ideas even though the articles intentionally lacked good arguments to support them.

According to PLB, this teaches us a lot about the postmodern left. I think it doesn’t. In the following, I will provide some comments on what our hoaxers claim they have shown, how little of that they have actually done, and what they could have done instead. I will start with a relatively minor point: whether PLB are entirely honest about what they’ve pulled off. My main point, however, will be that PLB simply fail to link their evidence to their conclusions. Read more »

Love and Grapes

by Max Sirak

Last fall, after a day spent hiking around the neighborhood, I ended up back on my porch with my buddy, Chef Mike. We were drinking beers and chatting about life.

We covered a lot of ground. Both in our walks and our talks that day. Mike was getting ready to move. He’d been in Colorado for five years and knew it wasn’t his “forever” home. As his name implies, he works in restaurants. One nice thing about that line of work is if you’re good, then you can peddle your wares anywhere. Oregon was his next stop.

At one point, when our conversation hit a lull, as conversations are wont to do, he turned to me and said…

*Chef Mike apologizes. It turns out he missed a word in this recording…

I was a pile of laughs before he even finished. “Dude?! What the hell?! What was that?!,” I managed to spurt out between giggles.

“It’s a Chinese tongue twister.”

To fully appreciate my response it might help to know a thing or two about Chef Mike. I was hoping to post a picture, those being worth the words they are, but he said he’d rather I didn’t. Instead he sent me his personal logo (featured above).

Mike’s in his thirties. He’s a good ol’ Italian boy from Chicago who’s built like a bear. Burly. 230 lbs. Six feet tall. Bearded. And, to the best of my knowledge in the course of our two-year friendship, Mike knew no Chinese. Read more »

Where I Come From: Part 2

by Christopher Bacas

The William Penn High School Marching band was a juggernaut, the coolest team in school. Its director, Holman F James, strode the football field, unzipped windbreaker, cigarette dangling, the Greatest Generation’s bandmaster. A sterling musician, he played trumpet and piano, wrote or arranged all the music and choreographed our field shows. He was also a solider, avid outdoorsman and master craftsman, everything Hugh Hefner should have been.

I got the band music months before our first rehearsals and trained myself to look away from the page as I played. At the first summer music rehearsal, more than two-hundred teens packed the band room. Mr James ran our opener. Sixty-odd woodwinds repeatedly muffed their way through his rapid figurations.

“Whoa. Whoa. Can I hear each of you on that?”

Everyone had a chance to show him our homework. I came prepared. Mr James used me to call out upperclassmen. He wouldn’t accept adolescent sloppiness. Anyone could receive a dressing-down: drum major, soloist or just a rank and file band member with dirty white shoes. Each week, we had uniform inspections and rehearsals on the field. Talking back was unthinkable. Particularly after a kid who cursed him felt Mr James’ dress shoe in his ass. We all watched tears drip from the kid’s eyes as he continued to stand at attention. Read more »

Poem by Rafiq Kathwari

Capitals: Game Farouk Plays To Keep Mother’s Mind Active

Moscow! Mother says
when Farouk asks,
Capital of Russia?

Japan? Tokyo!
She gazes at the sun

mirrored in a pane
across the courtyard.

“You were born
a week after Nagasaki,”

she says to Farouk
who arches his eyebrows

leans forward in his chair
gently rubs her gnarled fingers,

but keeps on playing.
Germany? Munich!

No. Berlin, he says,
& you, standing at the footboard,

think to what purpose
reprising history

of human madness
in the 20 th Century.

So many hardy women — here
Hebrew Home for Aged

The Bronx
lived through so many horrors

the horror of nuking humans
of Partitions

horror of Holocausts
of Ku Klux Klan

of a Cold War in Europe
horror of hot wars in Asia —

so many strong women like Mother
paragraphs of pyrrhic pride

writ on furrowed faces,
declining on soft beds—

yes, declining not reclining —
who now play along

with prosperous sons
in posh pavilions

named for patrons
who would annex

planets beyond the moon
if they could.

What’s the capital of Israel? Farouk asks.
“A trick question,” Mother says,
chuckling, “Falasteen.”

Google, Godwin, & the Philosopher’s Stone

Sam Rowe in Full Stop:

In the early 1790s, the London intellectual scene was convulsed with the fervor of the ongoing French Revolution. Sympathizers and counter-revolutionaries engaged in a ferocious pamphlet war, initiated by the Unitarian minister Richard Price, rejoined by Edmund Burke in his masterpiece of reactionary rhetoric, Reflections on the Revolution in France, and rejoined again by such writers as Mary Wollstonecraft and Thomas Paine. Political organizations arguing for electoral reform, including the London Corresponding Society and the Society for Constitutional Information, flourished. The resulting conservative backlash culminated in government suspension of habeas corpus and suppression of the free press and free assembly. The decade following the revolution was, all told, a time of tremendous political creativity and turbulence in the Anglophone world.

Among the most influential contributions to these debates was a complex philosophical tome titled Enquiry Concerning Political Justice by a former dissenting minister named William Godwin. Godwin was as radical as Wollstonecraft (his future wife) and Paine, but less political and confrontational, and his response to the revolution therefore took a decidedly intellectualized cast. The book’s final section, “Of Property,” was particularly influential in its strict egalitarianism: It provided inspiration to the utopian socialist and Chartist movements in the early nineteenth century and was being reprinted by radicals as late as 1890. Godwin’s arguments for equality of property, however, provoked a strange set of reflections on the perfectibility of other aspects of human life, leading in the book’s final pages to a notorious conjecture: “Why may not man one day be immortal?”

Godwin’s conviction of the possibility of immortality, which only a few years ago might have seemed quixotic and a bit embarrassing, has come back into fashion.

More here.

Meet the carousing, harmonica-playing texan who just won a nobel for his cancer breakthrough: Jim Allison

Charles Graeber in Wired:

JAMES ALLISON LOOKS like a cross between Jerry Garcia and Ben Franklin, and he’s a bit of both, an iconoclastic scientist and musician known for good times and great achievements. He also doesn’t always answer his phone, especially when the call arrives at 5 am, from an unfamiliar number.

So when the Nobel Prize committee tried to reach Allison a few weeks ago to inform him he’d been awarded the 2018 Nobel Prize in medicine, Allison ignored the call. Finally, at 5:30 am, Allison’s son dialed in on a familiar number to deliver the news. The calls have not stopped since.

Allison’s breakthrough was the discovery of a sort of secret handshake that cancer uses to evade the immune system, and a means to block that handshake—what the Nobel committee hailed as “a landmark in our fight against cancer,” which has “revolutionized cancer treatment, fundamentally changing the way we view how cancer can be managed.” (Allison’s co-recipient was Tasuku Honjo of Kyoto University.) Advances in cancer typically come in 50-year increments; the science that Allison and Honjo helped advance, cancer immunotherapy, has made a generational leap seemingly overnight.

More here.

Scott Atran: Does Society Need Religion?

Scott Atran in Psychology Today:

When French President Emmanuel Macron declared during a visit to the Vatican this past summer that, “We have, anthropologically, ontologically, metaphysically, need of religion” (Nous avons, anthropologiquement, ontologiquement, métaphysiquement, besoin de la religion), there was little critical analysis in the press, much less by philosophers and scientists, of the moral, historical, or evidentiary basis of such a sweeping claim by the leaderof one of the world’s first and most revolutionary secular regimes. What follows is an attempt to make sense of President Macron’s claim in the current European and global socio-political context, in part with the aid of recent research in Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East from our teamat Artis International and the Centre for the Resolution of Intractable Conflict at Oxford.

The values of liberal and open democracy appear to be losing ground worldwide to xenophobic ethno-nationalisms and radical religiousideologies. The “creative destruction” associated with global markets has transformed people from the planet’s farthest reaches into competitive players seeking progress and fulfillment through material accumulation and its symbols, but without a sense of community and common moral purpose. The forced gamble of globalization especially fails when societies lack enough time to adapt to unceasing innovation and change.

More here.  And part 2 of this article is here.

UNDP data on poverty shows gains are in line with Modi’s slogan, not a product of it

Sanjay G. Reddy in The Print:

In recent years, a debate has raged in India on what is the level of poverty in the country and whether it has changed, either to reflect the arrival of a new India or the persistence of an old one. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government stopped producing official estimates of poverty when it abolished the storied 65-year-old Planning Commission.

This has, however, only cemented the impression that the debate on poverty estimates has become something of a free-for-all.

The official estimates on poverty, and most of the debate, both in recent years and much earlier, have focused on the total quantity of the goods, including food, clothing and other essentials of life, consumed by ordinary Indians. But it has long been understood that this is only a part of the picture of poverty in a country. The well-being of a person is shaped by multiple factors, including whether she is healthy, educated, has access to clean water and surroundings, and has social acceptance.

The current government, like previous ones, has recognised this through various initiatives (for example, through the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan or more recently, the Ayushman Bharat). These may be a case of well-packaged more than well-thought out, but they are at least nominally aimed to deliver social services and to improve the conditions of life. It is, therefore, of interest and importance to ask whether well-being in these various aspects has improved over substantial lengths of time, especially for the most deprived.

It is this issue that has been addressed by the newly released “multidimensional” poverty estimates for India by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

More here.