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 »



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

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 »

In Search of Big Dumb Objects

by Joshua Wilbur 

I first encountered a Big Dumb Object (“BDO”) in an underfunded school library in rural East Texas. Sitting cross-legged on the carpeted floor, I held a battered paperback just a few inches from my face, periodically turning it over to inspect the image on the book’s cover.


I was twelve years old—“the real golden age of science-fiction”—and Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama captivated my imagination. The novel’s premise is simple: an alien starship, a massive cylinder of unknown origin and construction, has entered the solar system, and a crew of scientists must investigate. Thin on plot (and even thinner on characterization), Rama lingers in my memory not for what’s hidden within the vessel but for what’s kindled from without, from the mere suggestion of a colossus come from the stars. It stirred in me what sci-fi critics have called the “sense of wonder,” a feeling of awe that courses through the heart of the genre.

Nothing better epitomizes this sense of wonder than “Big Dumb Objects,” a term coined by Roz Kaveney and lovingly adopted by fans of the science fiction genre. BDOs, as you’ll have guessed, are really big, dumb in the old sense of “mute, silent, refraining from speaking,” and usually serve as a focal point for narrative action. Mysterious thing is discovered; mysterious thing is explored. In a Weird Things column for The Guardian, Damien Walter defines the BDO:

“ … the Big Dumb Object (BDO) is a unique selling point of the sci-fi genre. It can be a broad term – usually, they’re alien architectures, ranging from the man-sized to the planetary. BDOs either look extreme or unusual, and can often do extreme or unusual things: everything from lurking on a horizon to creating worlds. Usually, BDOs are plonked into plots to awe us with their majesty and mystery – really, they’re science fiction’s equivalent of a MacGuffin.” Read more »

Where in the World Are You?

by Carol A Westbrook

“Drive east 6 blocks and then turn right, and you’ll be there,” I told my son.

He answered, “Forget it. I don’t know which way is east. I’ll just use my GPS.”

I was incredulous. How could any native Chicagoan not know where east is located–toward Lake Michigan, of course! How could he not be able to find his way without GPS directions? After all, Chicago is merely a grid, as you can see on the map below. The streets are straight lines, oriented north-south and east-west, with 8 blocks to a mile. The street numbers increase by 100 every block, with the zero-zero point being downtown, at State and Madison. Give me the coordinates and I can locate you precisely and find my way there using the map in my head (except for those baffling diagonal streets). And if you prefer to use a compass, rest easy, because the compass declination in Chicago is close to zero

I shouldn’t be surprised that my son, like most younger adults, prefers his GPS. A recent survey showed that four out of five 18 to 30-year olds can’t navigate without electronic guidance, whereas more than half of people over 60 were very comfortable with maps. Myself, I prefer a map. If find my GPS is distracting when I’m driving, and if I follow it blindly I lose my place on my mental map.

Yes, I carry a map of Chicago in my head, or any other place I’m staying for more than a few days–including a hotel room. (It’s a handy way to get to the bathroom in the dark.) Most people have mental maps of their immediate vicinity and the areas where they normally travel; how they use those maps is another story. Read more »

In-Gendered Empathy

by Max Sirak

Recently I embarked on an unexpected and enlightening adventure.

I went to Las Vegas with four of my oldest friends to see some music. The band, Phish, was playing for a four night run at the MGM Grand’s Garden Arena and we decided to meet up and attend. It also happened to be over Halloween.

For those unfamiliar, Phish is a four-piece band that owes its legacy to the Grateful Dead. Their fans are fiercely loyal and regularly tour with the band, traveling from location to location and seeing as many concerts as they can. This is because Phish shows are fun

They’re equal parts concert and carnival. Beach balls and balloons bounce around the room when the band plays. The fans are engaged. They dress up in costumes. They make signs in hopes of encouraging the group to play certain songs. At a peak musical moment, the crowd spontaneously begins throwing hundreds, if not thousands, of Glow Sticks around the venue. This is called a “Glow Stick War.”

The concerts are between three and four hours. There’s no opening act and always a set-break (intermission). The music is largely instrumental and is accompanied by one of the best light shows in the business.

In preparation for the trip, a group text emerged. There were all sorts of details to hash out. Flight times, hotel reservations, and Halloween costumes were all discussed. It was quickly decided we’d dress up differently for each evening. Read more »

Callous Doughboys Band

by Christopher Bacas

I stayed out late the night before I left for college, saying goodbye to friends whose future included institutions even more punitive than mine. My parents packed my belongings in two long, green army duffel bags purchased at “Sunny’s Surplus”, where you could buy Afro picks with folding handles, decommissioned grenades and a “knuckle knife”.

At Baltimore-Washington airport, I watched a young man carrying a black-leather trumpet case unload his luggage from a Rolls Royce. My parents thought he might be going to school with me. I doubted them. My throat burnt by cheap Mexican weed, trumpet kid looked as sullen as I felt. He boarded with me and we flew southwest. At Dallas-Fort Worth, we both headed to the baggage carousels, still avoiding eye contact. The area gradually cleared, leaving a cluster of freshman music students. A saxophonist unpacked a gleaming Yamaha alto and played scales with a windup, wooden metronome. He began them slowly and evenly, a proper music lesson, and ended each with a monsoon of notes whose velocity propelled his body backwards, a cephalopod in flight.

A few of us took out the letters promising shuttle bus service to our dorm in Denton. At the curb, unmarked vans pulled in, waited and left, sometimes without picking up passengers. They drove through a lattice of Texas sun and graphite shadow. It was one-hundred and fourteen degrees. Read more »

Do You Have a Moral Duty to Leave Facebook?

S. Matthew Liao in the New York Times:

I joined Facebook in 2008, and for the most part, I have benefited from being on it. Lately, however, I have wondered whether I should delete my Facebook account. As a philosopher with a special interest in ethics, I am using “should” in the moral sense. That is, in light of recent events implicating Facebook in objectionable behavior, is there a duty to leave it?

In moral philosophy, it is common to draw a distinction between duties to oneself and duties to others. From a self-regarding perspective, there are numerous reasons one might have a duty to leave Facebook. For one thing, Facebook can be time-consuming and addictive, to no fruitful end. In addition, as researchers have demonstrated, Facebook use can worsen depression and anxiety. Someone who finds himself mindlessly and compulsively scrolling through Facebook, or who is constantly comparing himself unfavorably with his Facebook friends, might therefore have a duty of self-care to get off Facebook.

From the perspective of one’s duties to others, the possibility of a duty to leave Facebook arises once one recognizes that Facebook has played a significant role in undermining democratic values around the world.

More here.  [Thanks to Sean Carroll who left Facebook today and cited this article in his farewell note.]

Despite vast increases in the time and money spent on research, progress is barely keeping pace with the past. What went wrong?

Patrick Collison and Michael Nielsen in The Atlantic:

It’s surprisingly difficult to measure scientific progress in meaningful ways. Part of the trouble is that it’s hard to accurately evaluate how important any given scientific discovery is.

Consider the early experiments on what we now call electricity. Many of these experiments seemed strange at the time. In one such experiment, scientists noticed that after rubbing amber on a cat’s fur, the amber would mysteriously attract objects such as feathers, for no apparent reason. In another experiment, a scientist noticed that a frog’s leg would unexpectedly twitch when touched by a metal scalpel.

Even to the scientists doing these experiments, it wasn’t obvious whether they were unimportant curiosities or a path to something deeper. Today, with the benefit of more than a century of hindsight, they look like epochal experiments, early hints of a new fundamental force of nature.

More here.

Matt Taibbi: Why You Should Care About the Julian Assange Case

Matt Taibbi in Rolling Stone:

If you hate Assange because of his role in the 2016 race, please take a deep breath and consider what a criminal charge that does not involve the 2016 election might mean. An Assange prosecution could give the Trump presidency broad new powers to put Trump’s media “enemies” in jail, instead of just yanking a credential or two. The Jim Acosta business is a minor flap in comparison.

Although Assange may not be a traditional journalist in terms of motive, what he does is essentially indistinguishable from what news agencies do, and what happens to him will profoundly impact journalism.

Reporters regularly publish stolen, hacked and illegally-obtained material. A case that defined such behavior as criminal conspiracy would be devastating. It would have every reporter in the country ripping national security sources out of their rolodexes and tossing them in the trash.

More here.

The Autocracy App

Jacob Weisberg in the New York Review of Books:

Cardboard cutouts of Mark Zuckerberg placed outside the Capitol to protest the spread of disinformation on Facebook, Washington, D.C., April 2018

Facebook is a company that has lost control—not of its business, which has suffered remarkably little from its series of unfortunate events since the 2016 election, but of its consequences. Its old slogan, “Move fast and break things,” was changed a few years ago to the less memorable “Move fast with stable infra.” Around the world, however, Facebook continues to break many things indeed.

In Myanmar, hatred whipped up on Facebook Messenger has driven ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya. In India, false child abduction rumors on Facebook’s WhatsApp service have incited mobs to lynch innocent victims. In the Philippines, Turkey, and other receding democracies, gangs of “patriotic trolls” use Facebook to spread disinformation and terrorize opponents. And in the United States, the platform’s advertising tools remain conduits for subterranean propaganda.

Mark Zuckerberg now spends much of his time apologizing for data breaches, privacy violations, and the manipulation of Facebook users by Russian spies. This is not how it was supposed to be. A decade ago, Zuckerberg and the company’s chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, championed Facebook as an agent of free expression, protest, and positive political change. To drive progress, Zuckerberg always argued, societies would have to get over their hang-ups about privacy, which he described as a dated concept and no longer the social norm.

More here.

Rob Reich on “Is philanthropy bad for democracy?”

From Julia Galef’s Rationally Speaking:

This episode features political scientist Rob Reich, author of “Just Giving: Why Philanthropy is Failing Democracy, and How it Can Do Better”. Rob and Julia debate his criticisms of philanthropy: Does it deserve to be tax-deductible? Is it a violation of the autonomy of recipients to attach strings to their charitable gifts? And do philanthropists have too much power in society?

More here.

In the 1970s, the Swedish labor movement developed a plan to gradually socialize ownership. What can we learn from it today?

Peter Gowan and Mio Tastas Viktorsson in Jacobin:

Confronting the power of capital in the United States will require a plan.

We may be confident that the concentration of capital in the hands of a tiny minority represents both the primary obstacle to economic equality and one of the most fundamental threats to democracy in America, but without a concrete agenda capable of securing control over capital for the people, we will never succeed in overcoming these problems.

The potential benefits of public control over the 30 percent of the national income which flows to capital are immense: a society which can provide a level of comfort, security, and freedom currently unknown by most, a massive reduction in racial and gender wealth gaps, and a healthier democracy.

As such, the question of how to secure control of capital for the people must be engaged seriously, honestly, and by drawing upon the lessons of others who have tried to do so before.

More here.