Punch-Drunk Critics in The Era of Peak TV

Kyle Paoletta at The Baffler:

If a decline in quality writ large is indeed evident on the networks and streaming services, one could hardly guess it from the continuing tone of TV coverage. This summer, Sepinwall—recently ensconced at Rolling Stone, long Hollywood’s most reliable cheerleader outside of the trade rags—proclaimed The Americans “one of the great TV dramas of this era,” named Atlanta’s debut season “one of the best and boldest in recent memory,” and labeled Barry “the blackest of black comic stories.”

This counts as reserved praise from Sepinwall. And there’s a reason: in his esteemed opinion, 2018 “has not, by recent standards, been a particularly great year for television.” At least, not compared to 2017, when he groused upon the publication of his year-end best-of list that “narrowing things down even to twenty is tough in Peak TV.” Though one can scarcely imagine a civilian having the time or inclination to follow even twenty programs, to Sepinwall’s mind “there was no real gap in quality between my sixth-place show and about ten or fifteen series that didn’t even make this list.”

more here.

Thoughts on Art

Hank Willis Thomas at Artforum:

All of my work is about framing and context. Where you stand affects what you see. Your notion of reality is completely shaped by your perspective and what you bring to what you’re looking at. You can have multiple people looking at or talking about the same thing, but having different experiences when it comes to what they’re seeing and what they’re actually talking about.

I’ve always loved modern art, especially Minimalism and Conceptual art. However, I’ve often struggled with interpreting its meaning and even interpreting its value, and at some point I thought that I could engage with it more closely by working with optical ideas that artists such as Frank StellaDaniel Buren, and Ellsworth Kelly were wrestling with. I was really interested in Buren’s stripes because they are seen as so mundane and apolitical, and I realized that in the United States stripes play a critical role in our iconography as a country (the stars and stripes) but, of course, that we also imprison more people in the land of the free than anywhere else in the world and that prison stripes also have a meaning, a potency. There’s the idea of bars that are meant to represent liberty but are also meant to represent people being confined.

more here.

Handel’s Saint Cecilia Ode

Sudip Bose at the American Scholar:

If music is the agent of creation, it remains, for those on earth, a reminder of the divine. It is at once a celestial gift and a personification of human emotions. For both Dryden and Handel, music can be blissful and serene, as in the “What passion cannot music raise and quell!”—a movement that also features two extended, heartfelt solos, the soprano dovetailing beautifully with the cello. It can inspire us to war—“The trumpet’s loud clangor / Excites us to arms / With shrill notes of anger. / And mortal alarms”—the trumpet and tenor sounding the battle cry, and the martial roll of the timpani (corresponding to “The double double double beat / Of the thund’ring drum …”) truly bringing our blood to the boil. Music can reflect our jealousy, our pain, our anger, our desperation. And in quieter moments, it can mirror feelings of deep melancholy. In the movement commencing with “The soft complaining flute,” Handel contrasts the sad desolation of the solo flute and lute continuo (the timbres becoming magical with the addition of the soprano’s voice) with some spectacular coloratura on the word warbling in “Whose dirge is whisper’d by the warbling lute.” More passages of impressive coloratura come later, though in Handel’s hands, this writing never amounts to mere showing off, to virtuosity for its own sake. Rather, the florid embellishments always seem to enhance meaning, aligning text and music to the greatest effect.

more here.

NASA lander survives harrowing descent to surface of Mars

Paul Voosen in Science:

Update: NASA’s InSight spacecraft survived its descent through the thin atmosphere of Mars and successfully landed on the planet’s surface today. Although hurdles remain to achieve operating status, the lander is well positioned to begin to take Mars’s heartbeat in the next few months. “It was intense, and you could feel the emotion,” says NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine in Washington, D.C. NASA was able to quickly confirm the landing thanks to a flawless performance by two tiny satellites that accompanied the lander. These CubeSats caught and relayed InSight’s signal to Earth, along with a bonus: a first picture of the terrain where the lander will place its two instruments. Although the picture is obscured by motes of dust on the camera, the terrain looks promising, says Rob Manning, chief engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) here. “It looks like there’s not a lot of rocks in the field of view.” A confirming “beep” of health, sent directly from InSight followed, soon after the CubeSat relay. Now, the agency must wait 5 hours for confirmation that the lander’s solar panels have been deployed. Here is our story from earlier today:

PASADENA, CALIFORNIA—A boring spot on Mars is about to get real interesting. Later today, at 11:54 a.m. PST, NASA’s $814 million InSight spacecraft will attempt to land on a flat lava plain near the martian equator. The mission will be NASA’s first landing on the Red Planet since the Curiosity rover in 2012. “I’m really confident, personally, that we’re going to land safely,” says Bruce Banerdt, the mission’s principal investigator here at JPL. “Doesn’t mean I’m not nervous.” The size of an SUV, InSight is designed to explore the martian interior by sensing “marsquakes.” It has spent the past 6 months uneventfully cruising through space, making occasional tweaks to its trajectory. That calm will break at 11:41 a.m., when the spacecraft pivots and presents its heat shield to the atmosphere. At 11:47 a.m., the spacecraft will begin its screaming plunge toward the surface; friction will send temperatures on the heat shield soaring to 1500°C.

More here.

Genome-edited baby claim provokes international outcry

David Cyranosky and Heidi Ledford in Nature:

A Chinese scientist claims to have helped make the world’s first genome-edited babies — twin girls, who were born this month. The announcement has provoked shock and outrage among scientists around the world. He Jiankui, a genome-editing researcher at the Southern University of Science and Technology of China in Shenzhen, says that he impregnated a woman with embryos that had been edited to disable the genetic pathway HIV uses to infect cells. In a video posted to YouTube, He says the girls are healthy and now at home with their parents. Sequencing of the babies’ DNA has shown that the editing worked, and altered only the target gene, he says. The scientist’s claims have not been verified through independent genome testing, nor published in a peer-reviewed journal. But, if true, the twins’ birth would represent a significant — and controversial — leap in the use of genome editing. Until now, the use of these tools in embryos has been limited to research, often to investigate the benefit of using the technology to eliminate disease-causing mutations from the human germ line. But some studies have reported off-target effects, raising significant safety concerns.

HIV’s entry point

Documents posted on China’s clinical-trial registry show that He used the popular CRISPR–Cas9 genome-editing tool to disable a gene called CCR5, which encodes a protein that allows HIV to enter a cell. Genome-editing scientist Fyodor Urnov was asked to review documents that described DNA sequence analysis of human embryos and fetuses edited at the CCR5 locus for an article in MIT Technology Review. “The data I reviewed are consistent with the fact that the editing has, in fact, taken place,” says Urnov, who is based at the Altius Institute for Biomedical Sciences in Seattle, Washington. But he adds that the only way to tell whether the children’s genomes have been edited is to independently test their DNA.

More here.

Tuesday Poem

Self Portrait with NeoNazi Demonstration

— Leipzig, Germany 4/20/15

Just like that the day is black
and blue, bruised with hate.
Just like that my skin, black
as fine leather stretches so tight
I might tear into bright black
ribbons. See the flag– spent
and flaccid– the windless black,
red and gold clutched in a fist
that I fear will name my black
face dirt, and land. And so, just
like that plans fade to black—
a sunlit walk home folds flat
into a taxi’s steel skin, the black
seat holding my body upright.
See the street draped in black
uniforms, the shrill blue shout
of sirens, the march of black-
draped demonstrators, faces set
toward the sun in rows of black
sunglasses. I want to shoot
something, to become a black
grizzly and claw someone’s throat:
what I mean is I want to be black
and brave, but today, I am not.
Just like that.

By Lauren K. Alleyne
from Split This Rock

Russia’s Dead Souls: A Tale of Two Movies

by Pranab Bardhan

Ever since my childhood I have been excited, even electrified, by movies. In my college days in Calcutta, in search of alternate experience beyond Indian and Hollywood movies, I used to frequent the local Film Society events, showing some commercially unavailable European fare. Short of funds these Film Society outfits mainly went for movies they could procure at low cost. The East European consulates in the city were particularly generous in making available films from their countries.

Most of them involved grim, but occasionally gripping, stories of life struggles under Nazi occupation and oppression, laced with heart-warming episodes of small triumphs or tragic acts of heroism. It was only much later that I realized that some of these stories were also muffled and indirect protests of the directors against the then Soviet domination in their countries. This was the case, for example, in some of the films of the great Polish director, Andrzej Wajda (whose early films like Kanal and Ashes and Diamonds I had seen several times in Calcutta). His father was among the thousands of Polish officers killed in Katyn forest by Stalin’s secret police in 1940. (Wajda finally made a film about the Katyn massacre much later in his life, when he was in his 80s).

After Calcutta, when I went to Cambridge, England, as a student, for the first time I was exposed to what can be called an ‘abundanza’ of European art films. To borrow the words of the Irish writer John Banville, for me it was an “opulent pleasure garden where I sipped and sucked, dazed as a bumblebee in full-blown summer” (Banville had used these words to describe his ecstatic exploration of his lover’s female body). A couple of movie halls in Cambridge used to specialize in arranging retrospectives of these art films. Read more »

Shades of Life

by Adele A Wilby

Many decades ago, I packed my bags and left the shores of Australia and headed to the United Kingdom (UK). My secondary years of education had taught me to believe that my journey to the UK would amount to a ‘return’ to the ‘motherland’. A ‘return to the motherland’? Really? That says more about the education system I was exposed to, than just how naïve I was. However, having learned after my arrival that the UK was not, in fact, my ‘motherland’, I did discern that it had more to offer in terms of being ‘in’ the world than the distant shores of Australia, and I decided to stay. Thus, after many years resident in the UK, I considered myself as someone familiar with the country, until, that is, a change in my life circumstances provided me the opportunity to know the UK, or more specifically, England, in a totally different way.

Acting on the advice of a friend concerned with what he considered to be my solitary life following the death of my husband, I joined the Ramblers’ Association in the UK. Involvement with activities of the Ramblers didn’t last too long; group walking was not my thing. I did learn however, that walking was something I relished; it literally, put a spring in my step. The more regularly I walked the more the country opened up to me, an England loaded with complexity, diversity, mystery, and an alluring, limitless beauty: the English countryside.

In many ways, the countryside is how England can be: cold and aloof, requiring time to get to know; a place where one can feel a sojourner in its midst; a place where its nuances and secrets take time to understand. But it is too a place that tolerates your presence, and, as long as you remain respectful, it will allow you to saunter and relish the attributes that it has to offer, undisturbed and secure. That, to me, is fair enough; I don’t ask for more. I have no wish to disturb its existence, or indeed, undermine any aspect of its life.

The UK is exceptional for its network of public footways and bridleways; walking routes where ramblers are permitted to cross farmers’ property, to pass through private driveways and gardens and around farm buildings, if that is where the public right of way takes its direction. Read more »

Verb Tenses

by Gabrielle C. Durham

We can agree that a verb in the present tense means that action is occurring now. What about the present progressive, which I used in the previous statement? That apparently confounds non-native English speakers because it means that an action is in the middle of happening. Friends have asked me, “What is the difference between I am playing tennis and I play tennis?” That example is actually a softball because the present progressive indicates that the first person is in the middle of playing a game and the simple present indicates the playing of the sport in general.

This feeling of verbal instability perhaps approaches the bewilderment I still feel with some verbs in Russian when deciding whether to use perfect versus imperfect (honestly, not that common an occurrence, put play along with me, please). I understand when Misha went by train to Novgorod yesterday, no sweat. It’s when he ate a 3-day feast beforehand that I start getting itchy palms. Yes, the verb is in the perfect, or completed, past tense, but that piggish boy just kept engaging in the activity for 72 hours. Would you use the perfect or imperfect past? You could make a persuasive argument for either. According to the Oxford Dictionary, we can break this use of tense down to aspect, which would be either continuous or perfect.

So what does tense tell us? Verb tense refers to when a subject performed an activity (the verb). Easy, peasy, right? Not really if you start talking about other things that happened in relation to that time. That’s where pluperfects and subjunctives, among other infernal entities, come into play. Read more »

Earth Is (Still) A Clock

by Mary Hrovat

Image of sundial on an external wallBefore the second was defined in terms of the characteristics of the cesium atom, before leap seconds or leap days or Julian dates or the Gregorian calendar, before clocks, even before the sundial and the hourglass, there were sunrise, sunset, and shadows.

I’ve been thinking about timekeeping using shadows because a tulip tree in my backyard casts a shadow that traces a semicircle over the lawn on sunny days and moonlit nights, like the hand of a clock. The shadow is longest and most noticeable at this time of year, when the sun crosses the sky low in the south, and on summer nights around full moon. (The full moon crosses the sky low in the south in the summer, when the sun is riding high in the north.) However, I can see it year-round, given adequate sunlight or moonlight, although its appearance varies depending on the position of the sun or moon. I enjoy seeing this subtle demonstration of daily and seasonal cycles.

The gnomon on a sundial (the part that casts a shadow) was probably inspired by natural objects like this tree that cast useful shadows and roughly indicate the time of day. The first human-made gnomons were vertical poles or towers. For example, Egyptian obelisks, in addition to being tributes to gods or markers celebrating a ruler’s achievements, acted as gnomons, and their shadows marked the time of day for a city.

Sundials of various types were developed as these early timekeepers were refined by aligning the gnomon with Earth’s rotational axis and adding a dial that marks divisions in time. In addition, the natural or solar hours, which vary in length throughout the year if you’re not near the equator, were eventually replaced by hours of equal length. Thus was timekeeping made more useful but also distanced somewhat from its roots in solar time, particularly when clock time had to be coordinated across different regions and eventually across the globe. Read more »

Late hour

by Ashutosh Jogalekar

The fall turned colors faster than ever before. The streets never saw any activity. The whole gambit of Prometheus hinged on a mere coin flip. Richard Albrook gingerly closed his book and took a look around.

The café was almost deserted, college students and startup founders struggling to meet last minute deadlines, their faces a picture of desperate concentration. The baristas and their blues, the coffee with its vitriolic flavors. It seemed like the uneasy middle of time. Had not the soothsayer spoken with gusto and evident admiration for the march of destiny, he might have almost been forgiven for having a sense of whimsy.

Albrook had been languishing in this carved out area of spacetime until his visceral emotions had gotten the better of him. His friends had warned him that too much time with a speakeasy kind of permissive feeling would mark his doom. Not that feelings of doom had never crossed his mind, but this time it seemed all too real. Lost love, the convolutions of Clifford algebras and dandy details of daffodil pollination had always been seemingly on the verge of materializing in a cloud of abject reality, but the effect had been subtle at best.

It was this rather susceptible mix of preternaturally wholesome unification that Albrook was mulling over when the wizard walked in. Read more »

Poem

Whirling

Hebrew Home
The Bronx

Mother sobs
in short bursts

I lean over
brush my cheek

against hers
on the pillow

“What’s wrong?”
“Look at Tarek”

she wails
“he’s drowning

For the love of Allah
save my son.

Look, my bayta
he’s whirling”

I’m curious
how she knows

Tarek’s been swept away
by a rip tide

in Goa
The sea yielded

his corpse
a day later

We hid
the news

from Mother
She’d be beyond grief

for Tarek
youngest of six

even if 62
was her baby

I wonder
voices

she’s been hearing
since I was a kid

is this where poetry
comes from?

by Rafiq Kathwari / @brownpundit

NOTE: “bayta” in Urdu means son

Oh! What an Ugly War

by Thomas O’Dwyer

Kitchener poster

Now that the hundred years have passed, can we wrap up World War I, stick a label on it and dispatch it to the archives of dead history? Otherwise, it’s going to be with us forever. If you are old enough to remember the 1968 events for the 50th anniversary, then you’ve lived to see them happen all over again. The only difference this November has been the absence of interviews with living survivors – there are none left. Harry Patch, the last surviving man to have fought in the trenches at Passchendaele, died in Britain in 2009, aged 111. The last German veteran, Franz Künstler, died in 2008, aged 107. The last veteran from any country, Florence Green from England, who had been in the Women’s Royal Air Force, died in 2012, aged 110.

A notable British film came out around the 50th anniversary – Oh! What a Lovely War, directed by Richard Attenborough. It was a parade of stars – Maggie Smith, Dirk Bogarde, John Gielgud, John Mills, Kenneth More, Laurence Olivier, Jack Hawkins, and three Redgraves (Corin, Michael and Vanessa). They romped through two hours of popular songs parodying the war. It progressed from jingoistic optimism, through the stupidity of the generals and incomprehension of the soldiers, to a vast panorama of white crosses at the end. Attenborough nailed the pointless evil essence of the war (on the Western Front) with touching grandeur and sadness. In background shots, cricket scoreboards tallied the rising death toll in the “great game.”

Is it possible that in 100 years time the world will continue to stand in silence for the war dead on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month? Read more »

Sciences and Humanities: Moving on from the ‘Two Cultures’

by Jeroen Bouterse

It is a commonplace to say that a divide has occurred in modern academia between the sciences and the humanities. In the anglophone world, this diagnosis is often traced back to a lecture by the British scientist-novelist Charles Snow, who pointed out in 1959 what he saw as a lamentable gap between ‘two cultures’: the literary and the scientific culture. Snow’s Rede lecture has become the main point of reference for later commentators, who often sigh in frustration that in spite of Snow’s warnings, the divide has deepened or widened.

That we have grown so used to the ‘Two Cultures’ framework is unfortunate, however, for multiple reasons. For one, Snow’s lecture wasn’t about the sciences and the humanities. (He never even uses the term ‘humanities’ in the Rede lecture.) His worries were about literature, about certain writers who got their views on ethics and literature all wrong; not so much about liberal arts or humanistic scholarship. That’s not to say that literature and the humanities are unrelated, of course; but they are not always the same thing either, which is why Snow has little to offer us by way of explanation of the sciences-humanities divide. That, in fact, is a second reason why Snow is a less-than-ideal key witness: there is a lot of lamentation and exhortation in his lecture, and very little definition and analysis.

A third reason, and I would say the most important one, is that whatever the virtues and shortcomings of Snow’s model, the omnipresence of the ‘two cultures’ framework comes at the cost of a richer historical perspective. (That is a typical humanistic concern, of course.) People did think seriously about the relationship between the sciences and the humanities before and after Snow, and collapsing all the results of that thinking into the category of the ‘two cultures’ means giving yourself over to an unselfconscious cliché about the modern intellectual landscape. Read more »