Silicon Valley’s Chinese Dream

Jacob Silverman at The Baffler:

China’s rise as a tech powerhouse has dovetailed with Silicon Valley’s growing, and often vividly expressed, distrust toward democracy itself. Always steeped in libertarian pique—not long ago, technologists expressed hope for floating ad-hoc nation-states or, as Larry Page put it, referencing Burning Man, “some safe places where we can try out some new things”— Silicon Valley now toys with Californian secessionism and Singapore-style authoritarian technocracy. That new horizon, that place of raucous experimentation with a frontier-like possibility at striking it rich, they believe, is in China.

Long the industrial producer of Silicon Valley’s gadgets, China has developed its own thriving startup scene, towered over by juggernauts like Alibaba, Xiaomi, Huawei, and Tencent, which are formidable rivals to Google, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft, et al. From biotech to facial recognition systems, Chinese tech companies and their state backers are working intently on bleeding-edge technologies that can in turn be sold to governments in Central Asia and Africa, where China has funded numerous infrastructure projects while snapping up interests in mines, farmland, ports, and a Djiboutian military outpost.

more here.

Honduran Woes

John Perry at the LRB:

In her new book, The Long Honduran Night, Dana Frank asks whether Honduras should now be called a ‘failed state’. She argues that it shouldn’t, as it works perfectly for those who control it: landowners, drug traffickers, oligarchs and transnational corporations, the US-funded military and corrupt public officials. The Trump administration has seen Hernández as an ally in their project of restoring US influence in Latin America, promoting transnational capitalism and widening the reach of the US military.

But Hernández has earned Trump’s displeasure for failing to stop the migrant caravan, mainly of Hondurans, that has now arrived at the US border. Trump threatened to punish Hernández by cancelling all aid, even though the pressures on people to migrate are a result of the policies the US has encouraged Honduras to pursue. Hernández seemed nonplussed, closing a border post to migrants days after they’d left, and persecuting anyone still in Honduras who could be blamed for the exodus. Desperate to regain his credentials with Washington, he even told Mike Pence that Venezuela had financed the caravan.

more here.

Friday Poem

A Tree Within

All is visible and all elusive,
all is near and can’t be touched.

Paper, book, pencil, glass,
rest in the shade of their names.

Time throbbing in my temples repeats
the same unchanging syllable of blood.

The light turns the indifferent wall
into the ghostly theater of reflections.

I find myself in the middle of an eye,
watching myself in its blank stare.

The moment scatters. Motionless,
I stay and go: I am a pause.

by Octavio Paz
from Collected Poems 1957-1987

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LSD Changes Something About The Way You Perceive Time

Shayla Love in Tonic:

In 2015, when cognitive neuroscientist Devin Terhune was hit by a car, the impact took less than a second, but he felt it to be much longer. “I was riding [my bike] very fast, and so when I hit the car I went flying back around 15 feet or more,” he says. “Objectively, I’m sure the whole thing probably unfolded in less than a second but I experienced flying through the air as lasting at least 5 seconds—it felt very slow.” Time stretched out from milliseconds to seconds and Terhune lived first-hand something we experience in less dramatic ways each day. We measure time in set amounts— seconds, minutes, and hours. But the way time feels is more slippery. Ten minutes while you’re bored is an eternity and those same ten minutes with your best friend disappear like nothing. This flexibility in perceiving time is only enhanced when psychedelic drugs enter the mix. A review from 1964 on hallucinogens reveals how long we’ve been playing with the dials of time—speeding it up, and slowing it down—through drugs. One account from 1913 on mescaline intoxication said that mescaline made a person feel like “the immediate future was rushing on at chaotic speed, and the time was boundless.”

study from 1954 found time disorders in 13 out of 23 people under the influence of psychedelics. Most of them felt a “sense of temporal insularity,” where only the present was real and the past and future were far, far away. “One subject experienced a ‘timeless, suspended state; a few felt time to be slipping away very quickly, whilst in others the passage of time was slowed down,” the review wrote. “In one case where the mood fluctuated between elation and depression, the passage of time was experienced concurrently as rapid and slow.”

More here.

Rebel in Gaza – a love letter to an unloved place

Ben Ehrenreich in The Guardian:

There has been nothing so dramatic as a “war” in the Gaza Strip since 2014, but the Israeli military has nonetheless killed more than 200 Palestinians there this year. On a single Friday in March, snipers took the lives of 52 protesters. Most weeks, the casualties dribble in more slowly: two or three or seven are shot while demonstrating along the fence that confines them; or, unsuspecting, they are blown apart by missiles fired from drones and F16s. Only when the toll is particularly high, or an unusual proportion of the dead are children, do the international media take notice. Then there is the siege that Israel has imposed on the territory since Hamas took power in 2007 and the many deaths that this has more obliquely caused – along with the shortages of nearly all goods necessary for survival, regular power outages and lack of drinking water. Most Gazans are unable to travel even for emergency medical care outside the narrow boundaries of the Strip, generating a sense of suffocation and despair. You may have skimmed an article reporting that the UN predicted, in 2015, that the privations of the siege could render Gaza “uninhabitable” by 2020, which is no longer far away. Depending on your political orientation, you may choose to focus on Hamas’s failures of governance and fundamentalist rigidities, on rockets fired into Israel, on “terror kites” and “terror tunnels”. Taken together, this is the world’s image of Gaza: a place of violence, hopelessness, extremism and death. It is not inaccurate, but it is profoundly incomplete.

Asmaa al-Ghoul, who was born in the Rafah refugee camp at the southern end of the Strip, writes with clarity and tenderness of these realities and others that are less widely reported. Despite it all, she insists: “People continued to laugh in Gaza.” Her own laughter bubbles through the pages of A Rebel in Gaza: a stubborn, defiant joy in living, as keen as her rage or her grief. Ghoul, who has travelled widely and lived abroad, understands why so many of her friends have chosen to emigrate, but the cities of the west, “oozing with indifference”, hold little attraction for her. Her Gaza is a place of suffering but also of magic, as if its isolation and its privations bring the humanity of its inhabitants into sharper relief. “Life in Gaza has a strength that makes you feel that death doesn’t exist,” Ghoul writes. “Except in war.”

More here.

The Man Who Wrote the Perfect Novel: John Williams, Stoner, and the Writing Life

Nicholas Delbanco in the New York Journal of Books:

Many writers and an increasingly sizable cadre of readers admire John Williams’s novel, Stoner, without reservation. Stoner itself is not about drugs; rather, it evokes a character both monumental and flinty. A third-person account of a farm boy who becomes, laboriously, a college professor of English, it celebrates in measured prose the integrity of one whose name (as John Keats wrote for his own epitaph) “was writ in water.”

Both the honorable private man and tarnished public figure are vividly conjured throughout, and the low-seeming stakes of the conflict loom large. With its unsparing analysis of academic office politics, of quiet scholarship and failed romance, Stoner seems—as the title of this new biography of Williams asserts—“the perfect novel.”

That the same author should have next produced Augustus—a meticulously researched epistolary study of the Roman Emperor—and, previously, Butcher’s Crossing—a tale of coming-of-age in the untamed American west—argues a major talent, with several strings to the bow. He was a poet also, and a serious student of English Renaissance poetry, Fulke-Greville in particular. As he told an interviewer in 1966. “I try never to repeat myself. . . . Why do it again, if you’ve done it once?”

John Williams spent much of his life in relative obscurity, and his early achievements were few. Like the character of Bill Stoner (in part autobiographical, in part based on the critic and poet, J. V. Cunningham) Williams lived with limitations: penury and failing health and scant recognition.

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Can We Grow More Food on Less Land? We’ll Have To, a New Study Finds

Brad Plumer in the New York Times:

If the world hopes to make meaningful progress on climate change, it won’t be enough for cars and factories to get cleaner. Our cows and wheat fields will have to become radically more efficient, too.

That’s the basic conclusion of a sweeping new study issued Wednesday by the World Resources Institute, an environmental group. The report warns that the world’s agricultural system will need drastic changes in the next few decades in order to feed billions more people without triggering a climate catastrophe.

The challenge is daunting: Agriculture already occupies roughly 40 percent of the world’s land and is responsible for about a quarter of humanity’s greenhouse gas emissions. But with the global population expected to grow from 7.2 billion people today to nearly 10 billion by 2050, and with many millions of people eating more meat as incomes rise, that environmental impact is on pace to expand dramatically.

Based on current trends, the authors calculated, the world would need to produce 56 percent more calories in 2050 than it did in 2010.

More here.

Yanis Varoufakis: Progressive Europeanism in Action

Yanis Varoufakis in Project Syndicate:

Despite its obvious significance, Brexit is a mere sideshow when compared to the muffled but more fundamental disintegration taking place across the European Union. The political center is not holding in the key member states. Nationalism is on the march everywhere. Even pro-European governments have, in practice, abandoned all blueprints for genuine consolidation and are increasingly drifting toward re-nationalization of banking systems, public debt, and social policy.

With Brexit from the north and the Italian government’s deployment of xenophobic anti-Europeanism from the south, “ever-closer union” is becoming a farcical symbol of the disconnect between reality and the EU establishment’s propaganda. And German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s political eclipse is adding impetus to this dynamic.

While most eyes are on events in London and Rome, it is Germany that offers the best clues to the EU’s weakened state.

More here.

Sir David Attenborough Predicts the ‘Collapse of Civilization’ at UN Climate Summit

Brandon Specktor in Live Science:

You’re probably used to hearing Sir David Attenborough’s sonorous, British voice describe the miracles of pufferfish courtship and blooming stink flowers in nature documentaries like “Planet Earth” and “Blue Planet.” But today (Dec. 3), the naturalist and filmmaker delivered a far more somber monologue at the United Nations Climate Summit in Katowice, Poland. “Right now, we’re facing a man-made disaster of global scale,” Attenborough told delegates from almost 200 nations. “Our greatest threat in thousands of years: climate change. If we don’t take action, the collapse of our civilizations and the extinction of much of the natural world is on the horizon.”

Attenborough was chosen to speak at the summit as part of the U.N.’s new “people’s seat” initiative, which encouraged citizens of the world to share their personal messages and videos explaining how climate change has already affected their lives. Several of these messages were shared as part of Attenborough’s speech today; they included footage of people standing in front of the ashen remains of their homes, which had been incinerated by wildfires. “The world’s people have spoken,” Attenborough said. “Their message is clear. Time is running out. They want you, the decision-makers, to act now.” This meeting of the U.N. was convened so that leaders of the world could negotiate ways to turn their pledges made at the 2015 Paris climate accord into a reality. Per the Paris accord, 184 countries agreed to implement emissions-reduction policies to help limit global warming to less than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above preindustrial levels over the next century. Most of the world’s nations are not on track to meet this goal; in fact, a global temperature rise of 4 degrees C (7.2 degrees F) seems far more likely right now.

More here.

How The New Astronomy Obscured The Traditional Night Sky

Holly Haworth at Lapham’s Quarterly:

This expungement was part of a global shift in the way the night sky would come to be viewed, not as particular to the individual cultures in whose lives they played both practical and mythical parts but rather, as the historian Elizabeth Green Musselman writes, a “celestial blanket [that] covered the globe in one fabric.” The blanket of stars heralded “a one-world empire,” and those with the telescopes named each point of light and the constellations they formed when strung together, overlaying the vast kaleidoscope of names and stories that the heavenly bodies held for peoples in every tiny portion of the globe. The International Astronomical Union would eventually standardize the constellations with official names in order to avoid what one modern astronomer called “a chaotic situation.”

The British made a striking observation about the bush people: their eyes, wrote one colonist, were “little inferior in optical power to small telescopes.” Another said of them that “the eye operates with a precision and force, which a person who has never witnessed the like would scarcely be disposed to credit…They will often discern with distinctness what others require a telescope to distinguish.”

more here.

Studying Flamenco in the Midst of Love and Death

Catherine Taylor at The Believer:

My classes occupy me fully. Codo means elbow. Rodilla means knee. Tobillo means ankle, Muy pronunciado means very steep. Adquirido means acquired. Me llena means it satisfies me, it fills me up. The classes exhaust and complete me. When I come home, I lie down and keep the shutters closed. My t-shirt is always damp and sweaty. I think about kissing and open my mouth to the air. The patterns of the dance repeat even when I am lying down; they won’t leave and this is confusing and pleasurable. One teacher tells us to tip our foot outward to show off its “lady parts.” My ankle hurts every day. “Don’t just do the steps,” she says, “dance.” I make a kind of friendship of glances with the body next to mine day after day. Some days, there is a raised eyebrow about the other woman who races ahead of the beat. No corré! the teacher yells. No corré! Joder. You’re fucking us up. Uno dos tres. Quatro cinco seis. Seite. Ocho. Nueve. Diez. Un Dos. Uno dos tres. In the changing room, it is so loud, you have to shout in five different languages. There is more Spanish than English, more English than German, more German than Japanese, more Japanese than French. Everyone is racing, stripping off stretchy tops, baring sweaty breasts, wriggling into dry tops, stepping out of silly long black lycra skirts.

more here.

Trends in Feminist Publishing

Katy Guest at the TLS:

Publishing loves a trend, and the current one is for books by and about women. As many women as possible, in some cases: books such as Can We All Be Feminists?: Seventeen writers on intersectionality, identity and finding the right way forward for feminism (Virago), edited by the activist June Eric-Udorie, anthologize many voices to better illustrate the complexities of modern “feminisms”. Eric-Udorie’s title is a response to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s lecture-cum-essay We Should All Be Feminists from 2014, and in its tone, language and criticisms of feminism, it makes even Adichie seem a little old school. Its content will come as a wake-up call to some middle-aged feminists, with its focus on and nuanced understanding of “intersectionality”, and its foregrounding of marginalized voices. Many of these young women reject conventional feminism, and that, it turns out, is feminists’ fault. “Do these so-called feminists ever stop to consider”, asks Eric-Udorie, “that there are women who can’t even get through the door – whether because of racism, fatphobia, homophobia or transphobia – let alone into the boardroom?” One contributor, a trans woman called Gabrielle Bellot, addresses comments made by Adichie in an interview on Channel 4 News in 2017, that “if you’ve lived in the world as a man with the privileges that the world accords to men and then sort of change gender, it’s difficult for me to accept that then we can equate your experience with the experience of a woman who has lived from the beginning as a woman and who has not been accorded those privileges”.

more here.

Thursday Poem

Talking in Tongues

We knew to tiptoe quietly
if mama was on the land line
using her full lips to parse out
each syllable, carefully measuring
her words as if they were being
eye-balled and weighed
on the other end.

She saved that tongue
for bill collectors and the principal,
but if she used it to sound out my
whole name, everyone knew
trouble was coming.

The tongue she used for close friends
had sugar on it,
was filled with laughter
and warmth and music.

When they fell into small circles,
made words hold their breath,
change their color and meaning
and forced the rules of English
to take off its good wig,
it was not just speech class,
it was my first    real    poetry.

by  Frank X Walker
from Split This Rock

The New Evolution Deniers

Colin Wright in Quillette:

The philosopher Daniel Dennett has described evolution as a sort of “universal acid” that “eats through just about every traditional concept, and leaves in its wake a revolutionized world-view, with most of the old landmarks still recognizable, but transformed in fundamental ways.” Fearing this corrosive idea, opposition in the US to evolution mainly came from Right-wing evangelical Christians who believed God created life in its present form, as described in Genesis.

In the 1990s and 2000s there were repeated attempts by evangelicals to ban evolution in public schools or teach the so-called “controversy” by including Intelligent Design—the belief that life is too complex to have evolved without the aid of some “Intelligent Designer” (i.e. God)—in the biology curriculum alongside evolution. But these attempts failed when scientists demonstrated in court that Intelligent Design was nothing more than Biblical Creationism gussied up in scientific-sounding prose. Since then, however, Creationism and Intelligent Design have lost a tremendous amount of momentum and influence. But while these right-wing anti-evolution movements withered to irrelevancy, a much more cryptic form of left-wing evolution denialism has been slowly growing.

More here.

The CRISPR Baby Scandal Gets Worse by the Day

Ed Yong in The Atlantic:

Before last week, few people had heard the name He Jiankui. But on November 25, the young Chinese researcher became the center of a global firestorm when it emerged that he had allegedly made the first crispr-edited babies, twin girls named Lulu and Nana. Antonio Regalado broke the story for MIT Technology Review, and He himself described the experiment at an international gene-editing summit in Hong Kong. After his talk, He revealed that another early pregnancy is under way.

It is still unclear if He did what he claims to have done. Nonetheless, the reaction was swift and negative. The crispr pioneer Jennifer Doudna says she was “horrified,” NIH Director Francis Collins said the experiment was “profoundly disturbing,” and even Julian Savulescu, an ethicist who has described gene-editing research as “a moral necessity,” described He’s work as “monstrous.”

Such a strong reaction is understandable, given the many puzzling and worrying details about the experiment. Even without any speculation about designer babies and Gattaca-like futures that may or may not come to pass, the details about what has already transpired are galling enough. If you wanted to create the worst possible scenario for introducing the first gene-edited babies into the world, it is difficult to imagine how you could improve on this 15-part farce.

More here.

Information Attacks on Democracies

Henry Farrell and Bruce Schneier in Lawfare:

Democracy is an information system.

That’s the starting place of our new paper: “Common-Knowledge Attacks on Democracy.” In it, we look at democracy through the lens of information security, trying to understand the current waves of Internet disinformation attacks. Specifically, we wanted to explain why the same disinformation campaigns that act as a stabilizing influence in Russia are destabilizing in the United States.

The answer revolves around the different ways autocracies and democracies work as information systems. We start by differentiating between two types of knowledge that societies use in their political systems. The first is common political knowledge, which is the body of information that people in a society broadly agree on. People agree on who the rulers are and what their claim to legitimacy is. People agree broadly on how their government works, even if they don’t like it. In a democracy, people agree about how elections work: how districts are created and defined, how candidates are chosen, and that their votes count—even if only roughly and imperfectly.

We contrast this with a very different form of knowledge that we call contested political knowledge, which is, broadly, things that people in society disagree about.

More here.

Bacon, Freud, Hockney & The London Painters

Connor Linnie at the Dublin Review of Books:

Bacon’s various London studios became notorious for their chaotic admission of decadence and squalor. The most famous of these was his studio at 7 Reece Mews in South Kensington, which was posthumously donated in its entirety to the Hugh Lane Gallery in 1998. The first-floor studio at Reece Mews was reached by climbing a steep wooden staircase with a thick rope used as a makeshift handrail. Visitors entering through the narrow studio door were immediately confronted by a deluge of materials. Detritus mounds of old paint tins, tubes and slashed canvasses reached up toward the pale skylight. The floorboards were covered in a congealing mass of magazines, photographs, catalogues. Bacon’s maxim was that “chaos breeds images” and he absorbed the anarchic atmosphere of his studio space into his developing art practice and aesthetic. Spontaneity and chance were portals of discovery. He drew inspiration for his nightmarish scenes from the photographic collage of screaming dictators, hysterical patients, bullfighters and wrestlers strewn beneath his easel across the studio floor. Images suddenly suggested themselves on the rough unprimed canvass in the slip of a brush or an accidental spatter of pigment. A single strong stroke could define the outline of a man’s jaw, a cloth smearing animate a recoiling movement. Bacon even brashly mixed dust from the floorboards into one of his early paintings to capture the charcoal texture of a suit lapel.

more here.

An Open Letter to Elena Ferrante

Rachel Donadio at The Atlantic:

All creators of fiction contain multitudes. Writers write to discover themselves, and to hide themselves. “I know that my books can only be female,” you have written. “But I also know that female (or male) absoluteness is inconceivable. We are tornadoes that pick up fragments with the most varied historical and biographical origins.” No matter who is writing under your name, Elena, your work loses none of its urgency, none of its power. Sometimes I think back to the last passage of The Story of the Lost Child, the final Neapolitan novel. Lenù has again found traces of Lila. “Unlike stories, real life, when it has passed, inclines toward obscurity, not clarity,” Lenù thinks. This is precisely the feeling I have after reading your books. It’s the fiction that offers the clarity. The real life, the lived experience that might drive the imagination, remains a mystery.

more here.