Retiring Retirement

Linda Marsa in Nautilus:

He scanned my medical history, and the answer was there in black and white: a body mass index of 24, blood pressure a shade lower than the normal range, total cholesterol below 120, and no chronic disorders or ailments to speak of. There was just one outlier in this picture of good health: I recently turned 67. Which is why, when I saw a new doctor for my annual checkup, he had a hard time believing I wasn’t taking an arsenal of drugs simply to remain upright. There is plenty of alarm about the unprecedented aging of humanity. Since 1950, the median age in developed countries has jumped from 28 to 40, and is expected to reach 44 by mid-century. The percentage of citizens age 65 and older is expanding accordingly, from less than 10 percent in 1950 in the United States, Western Europe, and Japan to a respective 20, 30, and 40 percent by 2050. The fear is that, as baby boomers like me march lockstep into “retirement age” (the first of us crested that hill in 2011), there will be fewer young workers to support us old folk, which will curb spending, strain the healthcare system, and drain Social Security and Medicare benefits.

Yet it’s hard to reconcile this chilling prediction with my own experience. Thanks to genetic luck and some sensible lifestyle habits—I walk two miles every day, quit smoking decades ago, and have never set foot inside a fast food joint—I’m in as good or better shape than ever. I hike and travel, and still have the energy to work 50- to 60-hour weeks. I have a supportive network of family and friends, and a thriving career doing what I love. No longer crippled by the toxic insecurities of my youth, I’m the happiest and most fulfilled I’ve been in my life. As far as I’m concerned, I’m not even close to being put out to pasture. Am I nuts? Although my doctor may regard me as some rare, exotic bird, the statistics tell a different tale. Every day, 10,000 Americans turn 65, and every day, more and more of them are just as fit as me. Society may still view able, competent, sound-of-mind seniors as happy curiosities. But the fact is we are quickly becoming a sizeable demographic.

More here.

All Donald Trump wanted was to be president, and just look how it turned out!

Lucian K. Truscott IV in The Independent:

Can we, after all these months, find it within ourselves to manage a teeny-tiny, eensie-weensie, little itty-bitty smidgen of sympathy for Donald Trump? It doesn’t have to be much. Something about the size of the period at the end of this sentence would do. I mean, all the man did was run for president and accidentally win, and now it’s all over Twitter and everywhere else that he could end up in jail! C’mon folks, just look at the guy. It all started out so innocently back in the summer of 2015. He started out the only way he knew how: by running a reality TV show of a campaign. Remember that so-called “rally” in the lobby of Trump Tower when he announced? I mean, he and Melania coming down that escalator like a political Gloria Swanson descending the staircase of her mansion in “Sunset Boulevard.” He may as well have turned to the camera and said, “I’m ready for my close-up.” Even the crowd was mostly extras hired from an open casting call.

In the early days, his campaign amounted to Roger Stone and his pudgy sidekick Sam Nunberg operating with a couple of cell phones out of a spare office in the Trump Organization. Looking back, it appears that they had a list of Republican Party debates and a list of the primaries, and they spun things up from there, sending Trump out to rallies seemingly at random. He announced on June 16, and June 17 found him in Manchester, New Hampshire. Okay, that made sense. New Hampshire is where every presidential wannabe starts out. But July found him in Phoenix, Arizona, and Sun City, South Carolina. Somebody whispered in his ear in early August that he was spinning his wheels, so Trump got rid of Stone and Nunberg and moved Angry Young Man Corey Lewandowski in to run the campaign in a more professional manner.

More here.

Wild and Domestic

Wendell Berry in Orion Magazine:

I. GARY SNYDER SAID that we know our minds are wild because of the difficulty of making ourselves think what we think we ought to think.

II. That is the fundamental sense of “wild” or of “wilderness”: undomesticated, unrestrained, out of control, disorderly.

III. There are two ways to value this, as exemplified by the sense of “wild party”: from the point of view of the participants and that of the neighbors.

IV. To our people, as pioneers, “the wilderness” looked disorderly, undomestic, out of control.

V. According to that judgment, it needed to be brought under control, put in order by domestication.

VI. But our word “domestic” comes from the Latin domus, meaning “house” or “home.” To domesticate a place is to make a home of it. To be domesticated is to be at home.

VII. It is a sort of betrayal, then, that our version of domestication has imposed ruination, not only upon “wilderness,” as we are inclined to think, but upon the natural or given world, the basis of our economy, our health, in short our existence.

VIII. It was hardly surprising that, as our dominant economy battered and plundered “the wilderness,” some would undertake to save it in parks and wilderness preserves.

More here.

Saturday Poem

Addressing The Flaxen Spirit & Linen Women

—Addressing the flaxen spirit, not yet linen


We come from deep loam,
from fields of green, blue heads bobbing.
To harvest true selves and loosen seeds within,
permit wind to winnow away the clutter.


To release fiber from stem,
baptize in slow-moving waters,
or even dew.
Do not over-ret, for, as with anything,
there is danger of growing weak,
and breaking.

After the retting

the scutching begins.
Baptism is never enough.
To transform woody selves
to strands of silky smooth,
press against the sharp edge
of life. Prepare to spin
with the moaning


is the hardest part,
but it must be done—
we must separate
from our selves
to be spun into one.
Be still and comb
the heart, untangle
worry, part from grudges,
brush away the last stray
residues of this hardened
life we cling to.
Nothing to weigh us down,
readied now,
to be woven. Read more »

Against moral sainthood

Daniel Callcut in Aeon:

‘I am glad,’ wrote the acclaimed American philosopher Susan Wolf, ‘that neither I nor those about whom I care most’ are ‘moral saints’. This declaration is one of the opening remarks of a landmark essay in which Wolf imagines what it would be like to be morally perfect. If you engage with Wolf’s thought experiment, and the conclusions she draws from it, then you will find that it offers liberation from the trap of moral perfection.

Wolf’s essay ‘Moral Saints’ (1982) imagines two different models of the moral saint, which she labels the Loving Saint and the Rational Saint. The Loving Saint, as described by Wolf, does whatever is morally best in a joyful spirit: such a life is not fun-free, but it is unerringly and unwaveringly focused on morality. We are to think of the Loving Saint as the kind of person who cheerfully sells all of her or his possessions in order to donate the proceeds to famine relief. The Rational Saint is equally devoted to moral causes, but is motivated not by a constantly loving spirit, rather by a sense of duty.

The Loving Saint might be more fun to be around than the Rational Saint, or more maddening, depending on your own personal temperament. Would the constant happiness of the Loving Saint make being with her easier, or would it drive you around the bend?

More here.

A radical new neural network design could overcome big challenges in AI

Karen Hao in the MIT Technology Review:

David Duvenaud was collaborating on a project involving medical data when he ran up against a major shortcoming in AI.

An AI researcher at the University of Toronto, he wanted to build a deep-learning model that would predict a patient’s health over time. But data from medical records is kind of messy: throughout your life, you might visit the doctor at different times for different reasons, generating a smattering of measurements at arbitrary intervals. A traditional neural network struggles to handle this. Its design requires it to learn from data with clear stages of observation. Thus it is a poor tool for modeling continuous processes, especially ones that are measured irregularly over time.

The challenge led Duvenaud and his collaborators at the university and the Vector Institute to redesign neural networks as we know them. Last week their paper was among four others crowned “best paper” at the Neural Information Processing Systems conference, one of the largest AI research gatherings in the world.

More here.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn did more than anyone else to bring the Soviet Union to its knees

Michael Scammell in the New York Times:

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, pundits offered a variety of reasons for its failure: economic, political, military. Few thought to add a fourth, more elusive cause: the regime’s total loss of credibility.

This hard-to-measure process had started in 1956, when Premier Nikita Khrushchev gave his so-called secret speech to party leaders, in which he denounced Josef Stalin’s purges and officially revealed the existence of the gulag prison system. Not long afterward, Boris Pasternak allowed his suppressed novel “Doctor Zhivago” to be published in the West, tearing another hole in the Iron Curtain. Then, in 1962, the literary magazine Novy Mir caused a sensation with a novella set in the gulag by an unknown author named Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn.

That novella, “A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich,” took the country, and then the world, by storm. In crisp, clear prose, it told the story of a simple man’s day in a labor camp, where he stoically endured endless injustices. It was so incendiary that, when it appeared, many Soviet readers thought that government censorship had been abolished.

More here.

Edward Gorey: Master of the Macabre

Sam Leith at The Spectator:

Gorey has here and there been described as ‘Dr Seuss for Tim Burton fans’ and ‘the Charles Schulz of the macabre’, but he was in every way more wayward and interesting than that. He wrote almost impossible to classify little books — crunched-down Victorian novels — that seemed to belong in the children’s sections of bookshops but were quite unsuited to children, in whom he took little or no interest. He found a public only very slowly, and over many years — thanks, in large part, to till-point placement and Hello-Kitty-scale merchandising efforts by the Gotham Book Mart in New York.

As a rough contemporary, Maurice Sendak, described it, Dr Seuss knew ‘how to satisfy the customer’, and Sendak had no inkling of how to satisfy the customer but managed anyway; but ‘Ted had no intention of satisfying the customer’. He got there in the end though — working brilliantly and with great success as a commercial illustrator of book jackets, and getting famous in his own right with the anthology Amphigorey and its successors, and then his showstopping designs for a Broadway production of Dracula. But he ploughed his own death-haunted furrow. As he said at one point: ‘There is so little heartless work around. So I feel I am filling a small but necessary gap.’

more here.

A Moscow Caught at a Crossroads.

Gregory Afinogenov at The Nation:

Everyone knows that Russia is a kleptocracy, a Mafia state run by corrupt oligarchs who live in fear of the arch-oligarch, Vladimir Putin. It is also a neo-Stalinist dictatorship that seeks to restore the Soviet empire and sow the seeds of subversion in every Western democracy. Somehow, it is also a traditionalist bastion of Eastern Orthodox social conservatism and neo-czarist monarchism. Comfortable in our self-satisfaction, we writers and readers of Western journalism about Russia have an endless supply of frameworks by which to understand Russia, and very few of them ever indict us in the process. Russia’s problems stem from a tragic legacy peculiar to itself, a spectacle at which we can marvel but about which we can do very little.

Keith Gessen’s new novel, A Terrible Country, asks whether it is possible to unlearn the habit of thinking this way about Russia. Narrated through the eyes of an academic named Andrei, who flees the United States’ collapsing job market in 2008 to care for his grandmother in Moscow, the novel shifts our picture of Russia from one of comforting alienness to one of disturbing familiarity.

more here.

The Existential Dread of Gmail’s Auto-Complete Feature

Derek Thompson at The Atlantic:

Smart Reply and Smart Compose are smart features that have the effect of highlighting just how unsmart we might be. In a recent interview with a source for another story, I brought up my issues with Gmail’s auto-complete function, and we ended up talking about that for several minutes. “It can be so stressful!” he said. “Sometimes I see Gmail suggest a sentence and then I feel like I have to come up with a better sentence than the machine, because I don’t want my response to feel robotic.” In these cases, Smart Compose doesn’t automate the email process, or save time, at all. Rather, it extends the work of replying to email by alerting writers to the banality of their prose and by establishing a kind of Mendoza Line for non-robotic emailing that has to be surpassed before the author can hit Send with his soul intact. As the source continued to talk about his email issues, I laughed the nervous laugh of somebody who felt, not eerily predicted, but deeply understood.

more here.

Why performing naked is good for the soul

Adam Smith in More Intelligent Life:

Minutes before stepping out into the spotlight on a stage – totally naked – I am wondering whether to wear socks. “It’s cold,” shivers another performer. A friend counsels, “If you’re going out naked, do it in full.” The matter of the sock is a distraction from the fact that we’re about to show our willies to the masses. This might not be Wembley Arena, but the trendy basement bar in east London I’m performing in is packed with people – mainly men. Anticipation crackles among them. They giggle about picking seats with a good view of the stage. There are twice as many eyeballs as people. And each one of them is about to see all I have.

You might wonder why I am about to go out on stage in the buff. As a child I hated my puppy fat. From the boy emerged a slimmer adult man, but he will never have washboard abs. Gay men like me are the freest we’ve ever been, but many of us still feel oppressed by the grids of hunks on Instagram and Grindr and the narrow ideal of male beauty they represent. A survey of 5,000 readers of Attitude magazine in 2017 found that 59% were either unhappy or very unhappy with their bodies. The problem is particularly acute with gay men. Three times as many gay or bisexual men have eating disorders as heterosexual men. And as I pull down my boxers in the green room, I can’t help but wonder how little Adam measures up.  want to defy these feelings of inadequacy. That is why I find myself clutching my pages and jogging on the spot to get my energy levels up, preparing to deliver on the event’s mission: to help us celebrate our bodies. “Anyone who wants to be naked on stage can be,” says Justin Hunt, a co-founder of Naked Boys Reading. It is somewhat of a comfort to know that this event is by now an institution. Six years and hundreds of readings after this cheeky literary salon hosted its first event in a gay bar in east London, it is still serving up naked bodies every few months to a predominantly gay male crowd, in its effort to promote self-acceptance.

More here.

Huge brain study uncovers ‘buried’ genetic networks linked to mental illness

Linda Geddes in Nature:

Brain conditions such as schizophrenia and autism spectrum disorder have long been known to have an inherited component, but pinpointing how gene variants contribute to disease has been a major challenge. Now, some of the first findings from the most comprehensive genomic analysis of the human brain ever undertaken are shedding light on the roots of these disorders. Among the discoveries are elements buried in the genome’s ‘dark matter’ that seem to regulate gene expression. Researchers have also uncovered previously unidentified networks of genes and the buried elements, which might contribute to the chances of developing such disorders.

…Unlike disorders caused by mutations in a single gene — such as cystic fibrosis or some types of muscular dystrophy — neuropsychiatric disorders including schizophrenia involve hundreds of genes that interact with environmental factors. Each gene contributes only a small amount to the overall disease risk2. Over the past decade, scientists have identified numerous genetic variants that are associated with such disorders. But in many cases, it is not clear how the sequence changes alter gene function — if at all.

More here.

Friday Poem

Aunties love it when seafood is on sale

In summertime, the women
in my family spin sagoo
like planets, make
even saturn blush.
They split the leaves
of kang kong with
riverbed softness.

They are precise;
measure rice by palm lines
with laughter and season
broth made of creature’s last gasps.
You’d swear they were
teenagers again, talking gossip
stretching limbs
elastic, durable, like seaweed.

Come dinner time,
skilled mouths slurp
through the domes of
shrimp and crab.

prize the fat,
the angles of their teeth
splinter claw, snap sinew,
dip tart into sweet
then back again;
bitterness balanced,
succulence on succulence,
is to find flesh from even the
smallest of spaces.

Women who swallow whole,
who make a pile of bones,
who suck teeth,
taste every morsel,
so that all that is left
is a quiet room
and shells of what once was.

To the daughters of dried fish nets
whose dreams dragged on sand,
dragged to this country,
they bring home recipe years later,
flick joints to garlic,
salabat to the sick,
culinary remix, teach cousins,
this is how we stay alive,
mourning in the Midwest
by taste bud.

Afterwards, they keep the ocean
husks for another meal
because to get a good deal
is to double.
And anybody from the island
will tell you,
that is where true flavor is

and what is hunger
anyway, but the carving
out of emptiness,
the learning you gotta always
always save something
for later?

by Kay Ulanday Barrett
from Split This Rock

Ray Monk on Kurt Gödel and the romance of logic

Ray Monk in Prospect:

Mathematician Kurt Gödel, right, and physicist Albert Einstein, left, taking a walk in Princeton, 1954

We are sometimes inclined to make celebrities out of intellectuals despite—or perhaps precisely because of—their producing work we can never hope to understand. Bertrand Russell’s oddly old-fashioned dress sense and aristocratic bearing remain familiar features on the cultural landscape, as are Albert Einstein’s friendly face and shock of white hair. Indeed, such was the popularity of the aging Einstein that he was, decades after coming up with relativity theory, offered the (largely ceremonial) presidency of Israel. The elder Russell, meanwhile, was invited on to radio and television to give his opinion on everything from communism to what kind of lipstick women should wear. The reason he was invited on to the media was not, of course, that he was an authority on these subjects, but that he had, in his younger days, written abstruse things on mathematical logic and the philosophy of mathematics. The most notable of these, Principia Mathematica—in which he and his co-author Alfred North Whitehead put forward an axiomatic system of logic upon which they hoped to build, first arithmetic and then the whole of mathematics—is considered formidably difficult even by experts in the field.

The logician and philosopher Kurt Gödel passes the Einstein/Russell test, in doing work whose importance is beyond argument, but can also seem beyond comprehension as well. If you wanted to make the case that he should join them as a celebrated public figure, you could point out that among his work is an important contribution to the interpretation of Einstein’s relativity theory, and that he pulled the rug out from under the project on which Russell spilled most sweat.

More here.

Measuring cosmic distances with standard sirens

Daniel Holz, Scott Hughes, and Bernard Schutz in Physics Today:

The chirp of GW150914, the first gravitational-wave event to be detected.

Decades of experimental effort paid off spectacularly on 14 September 2015, when the two detectors of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) spotted the gravitational waves generated by a pair of coalescing black holes.1 To get a sense of the effort leading to that breakthrough, consider that the gravitational waves caused the mirrors at the ends of each interferometer’s 4 km arms to oscillate with an amplitude of about 10−18 m, roughly a factor of a thousand smaller than the classical proton radius. The detection was also a triumph for theory. The frequency and amplitude evolution of the measured waves precisely matched general relativity’s predictions for the signal produced by a binary black hole merger, even though the system’s gravity was orders of magnitude stronger than that of any system that had been precisely probed before that detection. As figure 1 shows, gravitational-wave astronomy began not with a bang but with a chirp.

More here.  [Thanks to Sean Carroll.]

Coal and Consequences: Five Days in Katowice

Daniel Judt in The Point:

As the bus nears downtown Katowice, the site of the 24th annual UN Climate Conference, or COP24, two huge funnels loom into view: a coal mine. There are fourteen in Katowice, although only two remain active. The rest lie strewn across the city like dormant volcanoes. The UN insists that Katowice is in transition—“from black to green,” says a welcome video at the opening ceremony—and claims that 40 percent of the city’s surface area is devoted to green spaces. Judging by the looks on their faces as they ogle the coal mine, the delegates on this bus do not see it that way. When they disembark, one of them scrunches up his nose at the unmistakable smell—rich and smoky—that wafts from an alleyway. Many Katowicians still burn coal for heat.

The conference center, called Spodek, is a massive circular arena with one end tilted upwards, which makes it look like a crashed flying saucer. To accommodate the thirty thousand or so conference attendees, Katowice has attached a network of temporary hallways (all climate-controlled, though they often oscillate between way too hot and way too cold) and a boxy entrance hall to Spodek, with a security apparatus to rival an airport.

More here.

Recollections of Stravinsky

C.F. Ramuz at Music and Literature:

We made each other’s acquaintance among things and by way of them. Once again, I don’t remember anything about the subject of conversation: what I do remember is the perfect harmony the bread and wine afforded us. For instance, I could immediately see that you, Stravinsky, like me, love bread when it’s good and wine when it’s good, bread and wine together, each for the other, each through the other. This is where your personality and, by the same token, your art—in other words, all of you—begin; I took the outermost path to this inner knowledge, the most terrestrial road. There was no “artistic” or “aesthetic” discussion, if memory serves; but I can still see you smiling at your full glass, the bread you were brought, the carafe. I can see you picking up your knife and the quick, decisive gesture with which you separated the rind from the lovely semi-firm cheese. I came to know you amid and through the kind of pleasure I saw you derive from things, the so-called “humblest” ones; a certain brand and quality of delectation that gets the whole being interested. I love the body, as you know, because I can scarcely separate it from the soul; mostly I love the great unity of their total participation in such a maneuver, where the abstract and concrete find themselves reconciled, where they explain and elucidate one another. For many young ladies, a musician is a big forehead with “ideas” inside (God only knows which ones!): you showed me right away that the musician who invents a sound might be the furthest thing from a specialist, and that he distills it from a living substance, a substance common to all of us but with which one must first make direct and human contact.

more here.

Marclay’s Astonishing 24-hour Film Installation, The Clock

Ryan Gilbey at The New Statesman:

Between 2007 and 2010, the artist Christian Marclay and a team of researchers scoured tens of thousands of films for scenes and shots in which time was in some way incorporated. It could be a close-up of a watch or a sand timer, the $10m four-faced opal clock at New York Grand Central Station or a novelty timepiece showing two pigs humping merrily (from Mighty Aphrodite). Better yet, it might be an instance in which time plays a pivotal role: the clock tower struck by lightning in Back to the Future, or Harold Lloyd clinging to the minute hand high above Los Angeles in Safety Last!

Marclay had in mind a more ambitious concept than the sort of themed compendium routinely found on YouTube – “Every Single Nicolas Cage Laugh”, say, or “Highlander: All the Beheadings”. The installation, which has been touring the world since its premiere in 2010, isn’t simply named after a timepiece – it is one.

more here.