Sunday Poem

From Vocable

—for JKG

Ninety now, you’re adrift on the vowel-stream,
the crisp edge of all your five languages gone

and we’re back to the least of language. It’s all one,
your, his or my slight modulations of the bare

vowel of animal need . . . though even there
how they give us away, our vowel sounds:

class, place, family secrets, the wrong
school or side of the blanket or overstayed

visa, let slip, between one consonant
and the next.


a fence of plosives, dentals and fricatives
as we will . . . in times of war and weather

we can’t stem the vowel-flood; it will swell,
barely articulate. No border can contain it;

it will seep, erode, find
cracks; it will break through.


North America’s Earliest Smokers May Have Helped Launch the Agricultural Revolution

Lorraine Boissoneault in Smithsonian:

In the beginning, there was smoke. It snaked out of the Andes from the burning leaves of Nicotiana tabacum some 6,000 years ago, spreading across the lands that would come to be known as South America and the Caribbean, until finally reaching the eastern shores of North America. It intermingled with wisps from other plants: kinnickinnick and Datura and passionflower. At first, it meant ceremony. Later, it meant profit. But always the importance of the smoke remained.

Today, archaeologists aren’t just asking which people smoked the pipes and burned the tobacco and carried the seeds from one continent to the next; they’re also considering how smoking reshaped our world. “We teach in history and geology classes that the origins of agriculture led to the making of the modern world,” says anthropologist Stephen Carmody of Troy University. “The one question that keeps popping up is which types of plants were domesticated first? Plants that would’ve been important for ritual purposes, or plants for food?” To answer that question and others, Carmody and his colleagues have turned to archaeological sites and old museum collections. They scrape blackened fragments from 3,000-year-old pipes, collect plaque from the teeth of the long-dead, and analyze biomarkers clinging to ancient hairs. With new techniques producing ever more evidence, a clearer picture is slowly emerging from the hazy past.

More here.

The human inside the machine

Tom Standage in The Economist:

In 1770 a chess-playing robot, built by a Hungarian inventor, caused a sensation across Europe. It took the form of a life-size wooden figure, dressed in Turkish clothing, seated behind a cabinet which had a chessboard on top. Its clockwork arm could reach out and move pieces on the board. The Mechanical Turk was capable of beating even the best players at chess. Built to amuse the empress Maria Theresa, its fame spread far beyond Vienna, and visitors to her court insisted on seeing it. The Turk toured Europe in the 1780s, prompting much speculation about how it worked, and whether a machine could really think: the Industrial Revolution was just getting started, and many people were questioning to what extent machines could replace people. Nobody ever quite guessed the Turk’s secret. But it eventually transpired that there was a human chess player cleverly concealed in its innards. The apparently intelligent machine depended on a person hidden inside.

It turns out that something very similar is happening today. Just like the Turk, modern artificial-intelligence (AI) systems rely on help from unseen humans. Training a “deep learning” system involves showing it millions of examples of an input (such as photographs of animals) and telling it what the correct output is (“cat”, “dog”) in each case. Once trained, the system can then correctly identify animals in pictures it has not seen before. But the training process requires huge numbers of correctly labelled examples – and those must be created by humans.

More here.

The Prophet of Envy

Robert Pogue Harrison in the New York Review of Books:

René Girard, 2000

René Girard (1923–2015) was one of the last of that race of Titans who dominated the human sciences in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries with their grand, synthetic theories about history, society, psychology, and aesthetics. That race has since given way to a more cautious breed of “researchers” who prefer to look at things up close, to see their fine grain rather than their larger patterns. Yet the times certainly seem to attest to the enduring relevance of Girard’s thought to our social and political realities. Not only are his ideas about mimetic desire and human violence as far-reaching as Marx’s theories of political economy or Freud’s claims about the Oedipus complex, but the explosion of social media, the resurgence of populism, and the increasing virulence of reciprocal violence all suggest that the contemporary world is becoming more and more recognizably “Girardian” in its behavior.

In Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard, Cynthia Haven—a literary journalist and the author of books on Joseph Brodsky and Czesław Miłosz—offers a lively, well-documented, highly readable account of how Girard built up his grand “mimetic theory,” as it’s sometimes called, over time.

More here.

We Didn’t Know We Needed Mongolian Folk Rock Until We Heard It

James Lanka in Phantom Sway:

I can’t understand the words. Heck, I can’t even identify all the instruments these guys are playing, but I am loving The HU.

Finding their video was just a happy accident thanks to whatever arcane divination is behind YouTube’s recommendation algorithm. For some serendipitous reason, it served up The HU’s video for Yuve Yuve Yu and I had to check it out.

Four guys looking like warriors from another age playing wildly ornate instruments against a rugged backdrop of Eurasian wilderness—the video is visually stunning. The music is at once alien and familiar. The hooks and the driving beat are pure rock and roll while the instrumentation and vocals are something that many in the west will find entirely new.

More here.