William T. Vollmann Confronts Climate Change

Katy Lederer at n+1:

Like all honest ethnographies, Carbon Ideologies also functions as an intellectual autobiography. We learn that, during his six years of research, Vollmann depleted his original advance and then spent his own money and unnamed others’ to “hike up strip-mined mountains, sniff crude oil, and occasionally tan my face with gamma rays.” (He relegates renewables to just a few pages, largely dismissing them, as he explicitly does solar, as “an ideology of hope—not my department.”) He loves gadgets and toys. In the first volume, this love expresses itself mainly in the form of an unmistakably phallic pancake frisker he carries around Fukushima, which he uses to measure the radioactivity of everything from roadside vegetation to the ubiquitous black bags of nuclear waste that line the empty streets. Dozens of pictures serve to document his travels. In one we see Vollmann’s hand grasping the frisker at the neck, pointing it at a bald statue of a praying man at a temple called Hen Jo.

more here.

Kafka’s Last Trial

Kevin Jackson at Literary Review:

The question of who owns Kafka is at the heart of Benjamin Balint’s thought-provoking and assiduously researched Kafka’s Last Trial, which (to simplify) is about the attempt by the state of Israel to prevent the sale of Kafka’s manuscripts from a private collection there to anywhere overseas, particularly to the German Literature Archive in Marbach. Spoiler alert for those who were not reading the newspapers in 2016: the state won. But Balint’s book is not so much about the outcome as it is about the arguments that were brought forward.

The reason Kafka’s papers ended up in Israel is simple: Brod, a Zionist, brought them there. After Brod’s death, in 1968, the archive passed to his secretary and confidante Esther Hoffe. She died in 2007 at the age of 101, leaving the papers to her daughters Eva and Ruth; Ruth died not long afterwards, leaving Eva Hoffe as the owner of the cache, which was of considerable size. 

more here.

Tuesday Poem

The Belly Dancer

Across the road the decorators have finished;
your flat has net curtains again
after all these weeks, and a ‘To Let’ sign.

I can only think of it as a tomb,
excavated, in the end, by
explorers in facemasks and protective spacesuits.

No papers, no bank account, no next of kin;
only a barricade against the landlord,
and the police at our doors, early, with questions.

What did we know? Not much: a Lebanese name,
a soft English voice; chats in the street
in your confiding phase; the dancing.

You sat behind me once at midnight Mass.
You were Orthodox, really; church
made you think of your mother, and cry.

From belly dancer to recluse, the years
and the stealthy ballooning of your outline,
kilo by kilo, abducted you.

Poor girl, I keep saying; poor girl –
no girl, but young enough to be my daughter.
I called at your building once, canvassing;

your face loomed in the hallway and, forgetting
whether or not we were social kissers,
I bounced my lips on it. It seemed we were not.

They’ve even replaced your window frames. I still
imagine a midden of flesh, and that smell
you read about in reports of earthquakes.

They say there was a heart beside your doorbell
upstairs. They say all sorts. They would –
who’s to argue? I don’t regret the kiss.

by Fleur Adcock
from Glass Wings
publisher: Bloodaxe, Newcastle, 2013

The amateur scientists tackling the global energy crisis

Will Dunn in New Statesman:

For his eighth birthday, Richard Hull’s mother bought him a Geiger counter. It was 1955 and the United States was testing nuclear weapons on its own soil. “They would always announce a test in the newspaper,” Hull remembers. “The material that went into the stratosphere drifted with the prevailing winds. The radioactive fallout particles came down with rain, as far north as New York and as far south as Georgia.” Hull lived then, as now, in Virginia, squarely in the path of the fallout that blew east from the bombs in the Nevada desert. “We would have days when we couldn’t have milk,” he remembers, “because of the strontium-90.” Hull wanted a Geiger counter not because he was afraid of radioactivity, but because he was enthralled by it. He pointed his new toy at anything that might make it tick, from wristwatches to rocks, and he collected fallout from the bombs. “I would take bird-bath water, or water that I gathered in pails from the downspouts of the house, and I would slowly evaporate that water on my mother’s stove, and that would leave the solids behind. And they were highly radioactive,” he says, with evident satisfaction.

For Hull and others like him, radioactivity is not a poison but a thrill, a kind of life within materials. The uranium we find on Earth, he explains, has been ticking away since before the planet itself was formed. “It has been decaying since the supernova that blew the material off and [it] slowly accreted into the Earth, billions of years ago. And it’s still going today. That fascinated me,” he says. “It still does.” This fascination has led Hull to experiment with radioactivity for more than 60 years. Under Eisenhower’s educational “Atoms for Peace” programme, a schoolchild in the 1950s could order small quantities of radio isotopes to their home, so Hull wrote to the US nuclear facilities for free samples of caesium-137, sulphur-42 and cobalt-60. Following a guide in Scientific American, he contaminated clover plants with radio-phosphorus and laid them on photographic paper, creating radiographic pictures of the veins within the leaves.

More here.

A Very Personal Problem

Dina Fine Maron in Scientific American:

Doctors are not accustomed to making medication choices using genetics. What they have done, for decades, is to look at easily observed factors such as a patient’s age and weight and kidney or liver functions. They also considered what other medications a patient is taking and any personal preferences. If clinicians would consider genetics, here is what they could learn about prescribing the common painkiller codeine. Typically the body produces an enzyme called CYP2D6 that breaks down the drug into its active ingredient, morphine, which provides pain relief. Yet as many as 10 percent of patients have genetic variants that produce too little of the enzyme, so almost no codeine gets turned into morphine. These people get little or no help for their pain. About 2 percent of the population has the reverse problem. They have too many copies of the gene that produces the enzyme, leading to overproduction. For them, a little codeine can quickly turn into too much morphine, which can lead to a fatal overdose.

…Still, fewer than 10 hospitals around the country—including Maryland, Vanderbilt and St. Jude—are offering pharmacogenomic tests to certain patients. The other main obstacle to wider use, besides reimbursement, is the lack of a prescribing road map. Many doctors were educated in an era before such testing was available so they do not even think to order them. And a lot of physicians would likely find they are not equipped to understand the results.

More here.

Are Big Questions a Good Idea?

by Emrys Westacott

Philosophers are supposed to ask Big Questions. The Big Questions is the title of a popular introduction to philosophy and of a long-running BBC programme in which people discuss their ethical and religious perspectives. But since we philosophers, following in the footsteps of Socrates, claim to practice critical thinking, it behooves us to ask whether Big Questions are a good idea.

It’s not easy to say precisely what makes a question big; but we can at least give a few examples form the history of philosophy so that we have some idea what we’re talking about:

  • What is the meaning of life?
  • What is the nature of ultimate reality?
  • What is Being?
  • Is there a god?
  • Is there some sort of cosmic justice?
  • What is the self ?
  • Does a person’s self (mind, soul) persist after death?
  • Do we have free will?
  • Why be moral?
  • What is the good life for a human being?
  • What are the foundations of our knowledge?
  • What are the limits to what we can know?
  • What is truth?
  • What is the good?
  • What is justice?
  • What is virtue?
  • What is beauty?
  • What is life?
  • Why is there something rather than nothing?

In modern times such questions have met with various fates. The cultural ascendancy of natural science was accompanied by skepticism toward what Kant calls “speculative metaphysics.” Simply put, we can’t have knowledge of matters that lie beyond what we can possibly experience. So we can’t know if there is a god, or if we have immortal souls, or if there is cosmic justice. In his Critique of Pure Reason (1781) Kant claimed that in denying knowledge he was “making room for faith.” Inevitably, though, faith in God, the soul and the afterlife has declined dramatically since Kant’s time, especially among intellectuals. There are virtually no articles published in philosophy journals today that treat the existence of God or the immortality of the soul as live issues. Science does not explicitly teach us that there is no God and no heaven, any more than it teaches us that there are no fairies or vampires. But the default attitude of most professional philosophers today is that in such matters the absence of evidence amounts to evidence of absence. Read more »


by Shawn Crawford

In January of 1841, passengers arriving from Europe would be greeted by anxious New Yorkers on the docks. They all had the same question: “Is Little Nell dead?” Such was the anxiety caused by Charles Dickens’ novel The Old Curiosity Shop. But why couldn’t tortured New Yorkers simply read to the end of the book and relieve their fears?

Dickens’ work, like many Victorian novels, originally saw publication in serial form. Released monthly in periodicals or stand-alone as “part issues”, normally in three to five chapter installments, serial novels kept the public guessing and agonizing for up to two years. From the serial we derive the term “cliffhanger,” coined for the fraught dilemmas characters found themselves in at the end of an installment. In the case of serial master Wilkie Collins, often literally hanging from a cliff or heading over a waterfall. Spoiler alert: Little Nell dies. Readers in London and New York wept on the streets as they finished the installment describing her fate.

While a brilliant economic strategy, after serialization you could sell the book, the serial novel also offered the perfect form to entrance Victorian audiences. As Linda K. Hughes and Michael Lund point out in The Victorian Serial, personal development became an obsession in the Victorian mind. Serial novels mirrored their belief that personal and cultural progress was gradual, positive, and inevitable. Read more »

Women on Strike

by Abigail Akavia

Photo by Rachel Segev Braun

Tuesday, December 4th, was a day of widespread women’s protests against gender-based violence in Israel. A general women’s strike was declared, which garnered the support of governmental departments, municipalities, unions and major corporations. Demonstrations were held across the country: roads were blocked; water in public fountains was dyed red; at Habima Square in Tel Aviv, an installation of red shoes inspired by the work of Mexican artist Elina Chauvet commemorated victims of domestic violence. The principal event was a mass rally in Tel Aviv Rabin’s Square. The vigils, protests, and marches, organized by dozens of feminist groups led by the Red Flag Coalition, gained an all-encompassing female empowerment vibe à la worldwide women’s marches, pussy riots, and the MeToo movement. The demonstrations were aimed specifically against the government’s with regard to the prevention of domestic violence, and its neglect to finance a multi-departmental program to address the issue—a program it had already principally approved a year ago.

A mere week afterwards, an honorary prize for “contribution to Israeli song” was given at the Knesset, the seat of Israeli parliament, to Eyal Golan. Golan, an immensely popular singer and performer, was investigated four years ago for (allegedly) repeatedly prostituting minor girls, with the help of his father. The criminal case against both of them was closed for “lack of evidence.” Golan was not the sole recipient of the prize, but his presence at the Knesset was controversial and sparked a protest of its own. (Some of the other prize recipients chose to absent themselves.) Though the prize and the ceremony were the initiative of one Knesset member and not an official event of the parliament, the Knesset Chairman is authorized to prevent such a ceremony from taking place. The fact that he didn’t, and that the Knesset as an institution—if not officially then at least by proxy—celebrated a man who casually abused girls, sends a perverted, corrupt message to Israeli women and the public at large. It proves the necessity of women’s disruptive activism in Israel today and, at once, its limited pragmatic effect so far. Read more »

The Third Threat

by Joan Harvey                                                                                                                                                        

When the air becomes uraneous

We will all go simultaneous

Yes, we all will go together

When we all go together

Yes we all will go together when we go

—Tom Lehrer, “We Will All Go Together When We Go”

You know what uranium is, right? It’s this thing called nuclear weapons. And other things. Like lots of things are done with uranium. Including some bad things.

—Donald J. Trump

The tide has turned, the Democrats have the House, Mueller showers us with gifts each day, hope lurches upward, though past trauma urges us to perpetually rein it in. We’re glued to the news, good or bad, to a level of destruction, corruption, drama, and scandal so great, it’s impossible to keep up with even a small part of it. We can’t process it all; we can barely find effective ways to act besides logging in with the Resistance, enjoying clever tweets, and imbibing good quantities of gin.

It’s hard to argue with Yuval Harari that the three main threats to our existence are climate change, artificial intelligence (and with it biotechnology), and nuclear war. And yet for most of us, saving some shreds of democracy (and decency) come first. Climate change certainly is on our minds, in the news every day, present to us as we watch so many people and animals suffer and homes and habitats destroyed. Then there’s AI, newest of the threats, still kind of sci-fi and sexy, and because we all work with computers and also have watched Facebook turn into a monster, the dangers of AI also do not feel so distant. But, left behind, neglected, is the oldest of these three manmade megathreats to the world, the peril of nuclear war. It’s a danger that has not diminished over time and is in actuality increasing. But even though it has the potential to be the most immediately destructive, it can feel the most remote.

I’m one of the few people who grew up on a homesite with a bomb shelter, a dark cold cave dug into a hill on my parents’ property. There may still be canned goods in there from the ‘60s, for all I know. Read more »

Self-portrait in a convex mirror: Signaling and the meaning of behavior

by Joseph Shieber

1. One of the descriptions often used by proponents of the so-called Intellectual Dark Web (henceforth IDW) to describe the views of the supposed shibboleths they’re critiquing is “virtue-signaling”.

There are a few problems with the use of the term “virtue-signaling” as a critique. Indeed, a number of those problems have been observed by some who might otherwise agree with at least some of the positions espoused by IDW adherents (e.g., Sam Bowman here).

Here are three of those problems with the notion of “virtue-signaling”. The first is that the term is a misnomer — that it’s a misapplication of the notion of “signaling”. Call this the MISAPPLICATION argument. The second is that it unjustly implies that those to whom it’s applied are being intentionally disingenuous — or even dishonest. Call this the UNJUST argument. The third is that the propensity of IDW adherents to characterize the actions of those that they criticize as “virtue-signaling” is itself an instance of signaling, and criticizable on equivalent grounds. Call this the HYPOCRISY argument.

I appreciate all three of these arguments, but I want to raise a different issue with using the notion of “signaling” as a lens with which to analyze behavior.

In order to do that, though, it’ll be helpful to look at the MISAPPLICATION, UNJUST, and HYPOCRISY arguments in a bit more detail. And to do that, we need to look a bit more at the notion of signaling. Read more »

Dead Girls Giggling

by Samia Altaf

Mandra health center, outside Islamabad, on this spring morning, without the cacophony and confusion of health centers in the city, was the picture of serenity. An emaciated woman of indeterminate age sits coughing in the corridor, in a chair that bears the logo of the United States Agency for International Development, next to a little girl with dry shoulder length hair and yellow eyes, one bare foot resting upon the other. I make a provisional diagnosis—pulmonary tuberculosis for the woman, viral hepatitis for the girl, both diseases endemic in Pakistan.

In a room cluttered with furniture and people, its walls lined with the ubiquitous portrait of the Quaid-e-Azam, a map of district Gujjar Khan and a couple of framed certificates whose writing is mostly illegible except for the USAID logo, the Medical Officer is examining patients. He nods to me while still attached to his stethoscope the other end of which rests on the chest of a skinny young man sitting on a stool holding up his shirt to expose his protruding Christ-like ribs. A man and a woman stand waiting calmly for their turn on the stool.

Mandra center, part of the government’s health service system that caters to the medical needs of almost 75 percent of Pakistan’s population, is one of the 32 hospitals upgraded by USAID for a total of $92 million to improve emergency maternal neonatal and child health services under a project called PAIMAN (Pakistan Initiative for Mothers and Newborns). John Snow Inc. implemented it from 2005 to 2011.

USAID funded repairs, provided surgical equipment, trained staff, and built a vaccination room with refrigerator to store vaccines. It provided benches and white boards for the meeting room where visiting US CODELS (Congressional Delegations) and USAID officials were briefed about the project. Mrs. Munter, the US ambassador’s wife, “sat here” said the medical officer pointing to a chair. “That was such a good time,” he remarks as we walk around. “See this corridor,“ he says, pointing up and down, “renovated by USAID. The walls, the floor, the tiles , the furniture, these chairs. They also equipped the operating room for C-sections and other obstetrical surgeries.” He begins to count off the equipment on his fingers—“special operating table, shadow-less lights, sonogram, sterilizer…and a special vaccination room. Come I will show you.” Read more »

Why Wine is an Object of Love

by Dwight Furrow

From its origins in Eurasia some 8,000 years ago, wine has spread to become a staple at dinner tables throughout the world. Yet wine is more than just a beverage. People devote a lifetime to its study, spend fortunes tracking down rare bottles, and give up respectable, lucrative careers to spend their days on a tractor or hosing out barrels, while incurring the risk of making a product utterly dependent on the uncertainties of nature. For them, wine is an object of love.

But why is fermented grape juice worthy of such devotion? What is the secret of its allure? It’s not only because it tastes good or gets you drunk. Orange juice tastes good but it is seldom an object of love, and there are far more efficient and cheaper ways of getting drunk. My answer to this question is that wine, unique among beverages, displays some of the characteristics of a living organism. This “vitality” exhibited by wine in its production and appreciation has a distinctive aesthetic appeal that accounts for its capacity to draw people to its orbit. Of course wine is also pleasing to drink and a source of alcoholic cheer, both of which contribute to its aesthetic appeal. But it is wine’s vitality that makes it an object of devotion.

What reasons do we have for conceptualizing wine as a living organism? Read more »

Academics Should Not Be Activists

by Thomas R. Wells

Academics have a privileged epistemic position in society. They deserve to be listened to, their claims believed, and their recommendations considered seriously. What they say about their subject of expertise is more likely to be true than what anyone else has to say about it.

Unfortunately, some academics believe they have a right – or even a duty – to use their privileged position to shape society in the right way. They join organisations and campaign systematically for specific laws, policies, and political candidates. They tell their students who to vote for and help them organise protest marches. They launch boycotts of companies and countries they disapprove of.

Such activism is an abuse of academics’ privileged status that undermines the respect that academic expertise should command and the functioning of academia itself.


Academics’ expertise derives from their membership of specialized epistemic communities (what I have elsewhere called ‘truth machines‘) that develop methods to investigate particular issues or features of how the world works, whether that be the effects of international migration on labour markets or the geo-physics of climate change. The outcome of this is not that academics are guaranteed to be correct (just look at the history of science). It is that they have access to the best understanding of the topic that those people in the world most dedicated and able to investigate it have yet managed to figure out. Read more »

The Philosophical Legacy of Said: Relativism and Positive Resistance

Emre Kazim in Maydan:

Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978) is second to none in terms of its scope and impact upon Area Studies. Indeed, 2018 marks the fortieth anniversary of this monumental text and it is debatable as to whether it is possible to say something new and meaningful on it, given the abundance of commentary it received over the decades. Such commentary has focused on the theoretical structure of Said’s thesis (its roots in Foucauldian archaeology), the reappraisal of seminal European texts (from Kipling to Conrad), and, perhaps most importantly, how Orientalism still dominates the discourse on the Other (by academic scholarship, popular media, and politicians).

Briefly, the thesis that the Orient is defined in opposition to the Occident; essentially as a means of self-defining the Occident and legitimizing the domination of the latter upon the former. This understanding of the Orient manifests in numerous cultural, academic, military and popular phenomena. Accordingly the Orient is always presented as mystical, feminine, despotic and liable to domination, in diametric opposition to the Occident, which is rational, masculine, enlightened and destined to dominate. This thesis is drawn from the exegesis of various texts, and can be followed in multiple contexts, from novels and encyclopedias to other forms of scholarly and literary production.  As a result, Said makes the point that when the non-European is taken as a subject, it is always read in terms of a negation vis-à-vis the European.

Many texts written in the past two centuries that touch upon this relationship, have been accused of essentialism and reductionism; they have been charged with being “Orientalist.”

More here.

Video Games and the (Male) Meaning of Life

Andrew Yang in Quillette:

When I was seven, my parents bought me and my brother an Atari 2600, the first mass game console. The game it came with was “Asteroids.” We played that game an awful lot. One night, we snuck down in the middle of the night only to discover my Dad already playing.

My brother and I loved going to local arcades and try to make a few quarters last as long as possible. It was the perfect set of incentives—you win, you keep playing. You lose, you’re forced to stand there and watch others play, hoping that someone is forced to leave their game in the middle so you can jump in. We became very good at video games. My favorite was “Street Fighter II.” I memorized the Mortal Kombat fatalities to inflict graphic harm on defeated enemies. On the PC, I was hooked the first time I played “Ancient Art of War” when I was 9. As I got older, real-time strategy games like “Warcraft” and “Starcraft” arrived to combine efficiently building armies and settlements with defeating live opponents. My friends and I would sit next to each other in a house with several networked computers taking on strangers and talking trash. 

The amount of time I spent on video games dropped dramatically after I graduated from college. I wanted to go on dates, and playing video games wasn’t helping. I developed a notion that virtual world-building and real-life world-building were at odds with each other.

More here.

A messy restructuring of America’s political parties is coming

Matt Taibbi in Rolling Stone:

Thomas Piketty, the French economist whose 2013 bestseller Capital in the 21st Century awoke upscale Americans to the shocking news that their economic system was not working for everyone, has written a new paper exposing more uncomfortable truths.

Piketty’s new essay, called Brahmin Left vs. Merchant Right, studied electoral trends in three Western countries – France, Britain and the U.S. – dating back to the 1940s.

Even though the three countries have different systems, all three feature electoral showdowns for executive power that broadly come down to “left” versus “right” factions.

A remarkable feature is how mathematically balanced these elections have been over the years. Piketty notes that even in France, whose final votes involve coalitions of multiple minority parties, the widest disparity observed in recent history involved splits of ten points (De Gaulle vs. Mitterand in 1965) and eight (Mitterand vs. Chirac in 1988). More often, he notes, the splits have been 51-49, 52-48, etc.

More here.

How gruesome real-life experiments inspired the story of Frankenstein

Iwan Morus in Independent:

On 17 January 1803, a young man named George Forster was hanged for murder at Newgate prison in London. After his execution, as often happened, his body was carried ceremoniously across the city to the Royal College of Surgeons, where it would be publicly dissected. What actually happened was rather more shocking than simple dissection though. Forster was going to be electrified. The experiments were to be carried out by the Italian natural philosopher Giovanni Aldini, the nephew of Luigi Galvani, who discovered “animal electricity” in 1780, and for whom the field of galvanism is named. With Forster on the slab before him, Aldini and his assistants started to experiment. The Timesnewspaper reported: “On the first application of the process to the face, the jaw of the deceased criminal began to quiver, the adjoining muscles were horribly contorted, and one eye was actually opened. In the subsequent part of the process, the right hand was raised and clenched, and the legs and thighs were set in motion.”

It looked to some spectators “as if the wretched man was on the eve of being restored to life”.

…The idea that electricity really was the stuff of life and that it might be used to bring back the dead was certainly a familiar one in the kinds of circles in which the young Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley – the author of Frankenstein – moved. The English poet, and family friend, Samuel Taylor Coleridge was fascinated by the connections between electricity and life. Writing to his friend the chemist Humphry Davy after hearing that he was giving lectures at the Royal Institution in London, he told him how his “motive muscles tingled and contracted at the news, as if you had bared them and were zincifying the life-mocking fibres”. Percy Bysshe Shelley himself – who would become Wollstonecraft’s husband in 1816 – was another enthusiast for galvanic experimentation.

More here.