What we gain from keeping books

Anakana Schofield in The Guardian:

The latest TV series by charming, tidy-up guru Marie Kondo has landed on Netflix and while we are all in love with the vibrant folk featured in her show, last week I accidentally entered the damning territory of disagreeing with Kondo’s philosophy – in a tweet that went viral. For while I’d heed Kondo’s “Konmari method” for habits such as folding T-shirts, she is woefully misguided when she says we should get rid of books that don’t give us “joy”. Present tally among the 25,000-plus tweets replying to mine: 65% agree with me, 20% disagree, 3% think we are fighting over a football team and 5% insist Kondo’s position is way more nuanced than I give credit for. The rest insist I am a joyless frump. But be assured that this joyless frump will not be following Kondo’s advice, to essentially hold my books against my teats and left ventricle to see if they spark joy. If my own novels are anything to go by, I should be slightly concerned if the most recent, Martin John, sparked joy in anyone other than a convicted sex offender or a forensic psychiatrist.

…I read in a variety of ways – ebooks, audiobooks – and never mind donating or sharing books. But I can’t imagine what a blank collection of physical books I’d be left with if they had to spark joy. (Goodbye Jelinek, Bernhard and Kafka, hello books with photos of hippo feet.) When I look at my shelves, I marvel at how random books have ended up beside each other. Some are on my shelf on the strength of just one line or a paragraph. Some are gifts, others I found discarded in the street. But every purchase of a book is a gesture of faith in the writer who wrote it. Writers are nothing without readers. Rather than following Kondo’s rules, I’d like to suggest another: it should be obligatory that all living spaces come with built-in bookshelves. (And a hammock.)

More here.


Tuesday Poem

Keswick, There and Back

The Squire strutting down the drive? – No, a partridge off for a stroll.
stone fence; moss; sharp, stiff holly leaves; soft drape of cedar, a still life.
Triplets: Lady in brown, black, white walks between two collies.

The dropped pound chings against the bar’s brass footrail
“Autumn, Autumn, Autumn, Autumn,” an old drunk murmurs to his pint.
Bored tall blonde on high heels, smoke in one hand, drink in the other.

Eight black cows in a line hurrying towards an forgotten open gate.
Beneath dappled cloud masses – a jet’s double streak.
On all sides, mountains.  They don’t look down.

This was written years ago. The year I live in now has long ago turned and heads
inward towards the solstice, and, later, my 85th birthday. I’ve just begun to understand
the old man in the pub talking to his pint of bitter, “Autumn, Autumn, Autumn, Autumn.”

by Nils Peterson
from Wanderlust, a narrative map

AI face-scanning app spots signs of rare genetic disorders

Elie Dolgin in Nature:

A deep-learning algorithm is helping doctors and researchers to pinpoint a range of rare genetic disorders by analysing pictures of people’s faces. In a paper1 published on 7 January in Nature Medicine, researchers describe the technology behind the diagnostic aid, a smartphone app called Face2Gene. It relies on machine-learning algorithms and brain-like neural networks to classify distinctive facial features in photos of people with congenital and neurodevelopmental disorders. Using the patterns that it infers from the pictures, the model homes in on possible diagnoses and provides a list of likely options.

Doctors have been using the technology as an aid, even though it’s not intended to provide definitive diagnoses. But it does raise a number of ethical and legal concerns, say researchers. These include ethnic bias in training data sets and the commercial fragmentation of databases, both of which could limit the reach of the diagnostic tool. Researchers at FDNA, a digital-health company in Boston, Massachusetts, first trained the artificial intelligence (AI) system to distinguish Cornelia de Lange syndrome and Angelman syndrome — two conditions with distinct facial features — from other similar conditions. They also taught the model to classify different genetic forms of a third disorder known as Noonan syndrome. Then the researchers, led by FDNA chief technology officer Yaron Gurovich, fed the algorithm more than 17,000 images of diagnosed cases spanning 216 distinct syndromes. When presented with new images of people’s faces, the app’s best diagnostic guess was correct in about 65% of cases. And when considering multiple predictions, Face2Gene’s top-ten list contained the right diagnosis about 90% of the time.

More here.

Climbing the Walls

by Michael Liss

What is it about immigration that causes us to lose our minds?

I’m not even referring to the absurd spectacle of toilets overflowing at national monuments and hundreds of thousands of federal workers going without pay. In theory, at least, there’s a reason for that: The President promised his supporters a magnificent structure across the Southern Border, and the Democrats don’t want to advance Mexico the money to pay for it.

I’m talking about the insanity of not addressing the root issue—actual immigration policy. Let’s be honest with ourselves, a few billion dollars for something that seems to be morphing in composition and cost every day doesn’t solve our immigration woes. It doesn’t build a Wall, either. We would be taking on the largest infrastructure project since the build-out of the national highway system, lasting many years and including enough eminent domain (because a considerable amount of border land in Texas is in private hands) to cause conservative heads to explode. A few billion is barely seed money for the lobbyists.

So, let’s talk about what we should be talking about: Immigration policy. And let’s start with a hypothetical: The nation has decided to make you Immigration Czar. You have the absolute power to determine policy for the next two years. What do you want to do with it? Read more »

Letting You In on a Secret: Alyssa DeLuccia’s Photographed Collages

by Andrea Scrima

Alyssa DeLuccia’s Letting You in on a Secret is an eloquent artistic inquiry into present-day politics, the media, and contemporary life—one that takes the form of a visual essay operating within the disturbance pattern of a subtle but crucial shift in medium that multiplies and compounds the power of the work and its message.

Fierce and Dominant

DeLuccia uses contemporary print media as raw material, fracturing the images and rearranging visual themes to create collages, which she then photographs. And for several important reasons, it’s the photograph and not the installed collage that is the final work of art. The media-reflective dimension of Letting You in on a Secret—the fact that it is based on print media, but locates its final manifestation in the realm of the photographic image intended not for mass-media reproduction, but for the reflective, contemplative context of the exhibition space—speaks to the dire state of imagery and language in the current media landscape and the need to find new methods to assess, decipher, and analyze conflicting and competing information. The new mistrust in the reliability and trustworthiness not only of the means of distribution through news channels, editorial boards, and social media, but in the veracity of the words and images themselves has, on a very basic level, changed the way in which we perceive and engage with the information raining down upon us. Read more »

Alan Lightman On Wasting Time

by Anitra Pavlico

For millennia, humans have had a tradition of introspection and meditation. The Buddhist Dhammapada says that when a monk goes into an “empty place” and calms his mind, he experiences “a delight that transcends that of men.” The ancient Greeks exhorted one to know thyself. Montaigne wrote that the “solitude that I love and advocate is chiefly a matter of drawing my feelings and thoughts back into myself.” This was not so easy even in quieter times, but in the wired era, it has become almost impossible. When Bertrand Russell wrote his essay “In Praise of Idleness” in 1932, the threat to downtime and self-fulfillment was work: “I want to say, in all seriousness, that a great deal of harm is being done in the modern world by belief in the virtuousness of work, and that the road to happiness and prosperity lies in an organized diminution of work.” This is still valid, as we work more than ever despite skyrocketing productivity thanks to technological advances. The trouble today, however, is that even our supposed leisure hours are spent on the grid, essentially ensuring that we never get a moment’s rest.

Over the past few years, numerous books and articles have sounded the alarm on how our online habits are affecting our mental health. Even individuals in the tech industry–including Tim Cook, the Apple CEO who prefers that his nephew not use social media, and Tristan Harris, former Google employee and founder of Time Well Spent, a group advocating for more sensible use of online tools—are joining the chorus. Against this backdrop, physicist, novelist, and essayist Alan Lightman has added his own manifesto, In Praise of Wasting Time. Of course, the title is ironic, because Lightman argues that by putting down our devices and spending time on quiet reflection, we regain some of our lost humanity, peace of mind, and capacity for creativity—not a waste of time, after all, despite the prevailing mentality that we should spend every moment actually doing something. The problem is not only our devices, the internet, and social media. Lightman argues that the world has become much more noisy, fast-paced, and distracting. Partly, he writes, this is because the advances that have enabled the much greater transfer of data, and therefore productivity, have created an environment in which seemingly inexorable market forces push for more time working and less leisure time. Read more »

Vaclav Havel’s Guide to Politically-Dangerous Times

by Robert Fay

On the morning of August 20, 1968, the Czech playwright Vaclav Havel had a serious hangover. He was at his country home in Liberec after a night of boozing it up with his actor friend Jan Tříska, who would emigrate to the U.S. in 1977 and eventually appear in The Karate Kid III (I’m not making this up), while Havel went on in 1989 to became president of a free Czechoslovakia (equally astonishing). But on that summer morning, these two men were still just creatures of the Prague theatre world. They caroused at night with their artist and intellectual companions, slept-in late and then worked diligently on their respective crafts in the afternoons, much as their colleagues in London or Paris did.

But these familiar routines came to a halt promptly on August 20 when the Warsaw Pact nations, led by the Soviet Union, invaded Czechoslovakia, ending eight months of political reform and expanded social and civic freedoms that has become known as “The Prague Spring.”

In the popular western imagination, the Prague Spring has been both sacralized and completely mischaracterized. It’s been crudely lumped in with the 1960s political unrest in the West, something like: “The Summer of Love—Slavic Style.” But the anti-establishment, countercultural youth rebellions (sexual freedom, drug use, feminism, gay rights, etc.) that were visible in cities like Paris, London and San Francisco had little in common with the Prague Spring. Read more »

Why You’re Wrong

by Akim Reinhardt

Your numbers are off
I said your numbers are off
You forgot your watch
You forgot your glasses
You misread
You misunderstood
You’re missing the point
You’re naive
You’re irrational
You’re close minded
You’re vain
You’re shallow
You’re overly emotional
It’s wishful thinking
You’re too optimistic
You’re too pessemistic
You’re full of yourself
You’re self-serving
You’re self-conscious
You’re cliquish
You play favorites
I said you play favorites
You point fingers
You get personal
You’re taking it personally
You keep making it about you
It’s not about you
It is about you
You’re not that special
It’s not really about them
You’re clingy
You’re jealous
You’re judgmental
You’re a control freak
You’re manipulative and don’t even know it
You’re easily influenced
You don’t think for yourself
You shouldn’t speak for others
You didn’t do anything
The Devil’s in the details
You’re over complicating it 
You expect too much
You generalize
You fear meaninglessness
You fear the unknown
You crave explanations where there are none
You’re comfortable with you already know
You settle
You’re not discerning
You’re a creature of habit
You’re stuck in your ways
You’re really stuck in your ways
God damn, are you stuck in your ways
You’re stubborn
I said you’re stubborn
You already had your mind made up
Your head’s in the sand
You have blinders on
You’re shortsighted
You’re afraid to look in the mirror
Hindsight is 20/20
You’re looking at it backwards
It’s not too late
It’s later than you think
You’re not thinking straight
It’s not as bad as you think
There’s more to it
There’s a lot more to it
There’s not that much to it
You’re making excuses
You’re impatient
You’re in a rush
You have a short memory
You’re bad at history
I said you’re bad at history
Man, are you bad at history

Akim Reinhardt is a Historian.  And he’s usually wrong.  His website is ThePublicProfessor.com

The Perfect Library

by Leanne Ogasawara

In heaven, there will be no more sea journeys, says Virgil. For much of human history, to journey by ship across open waters was thought of almost as an act of transgression. It was something requiring great temerity and audacity. It was therefore something not to be taken lightly.

Crossing boundaries, such journeys often ended in ruin.


CS Lewis once described the people of the Middle Ages, not as a pack of barbarians, but as a literate people who had simply lost all their books. Likening them to castaways washed ashore with just a few of their greatest volumes, the medievals, he said, set out to rebuild their civilization. Not an easy task to be sure; for not only had they lost most of their library, but what did survive, survived by nothing other than mere chance. This is how it came to pass that while all of Aristotle was lost, parts of Plato’s Timaeus somehow made it. (Of all the works by Plato, the Timaeus might be the last one that could have been any use to the people!) It would take centuries to rebuild what was lost–and this done through Latin translations made via the Arabic translations.

I like this way of imagining the medievals; for I too have suffered a shipwreck. This happened when I was 44 and walked away from my life in Japan. I left everything behind. All my beloved clothes, pottery, furniture, gifts– you name it. Just a few choice things to put in one suitcase –with the other suitcase devoted to things I imagined my son might want. Walking away from my belongings was a lot easier than you might imagine. Indeed, I found I didn’t miss any of it. Well, except for one important thing: I missed my books beyond belief.

My lost books in Japan haunted my thoughts. So a few years ago, my astronomer and I started recreating my library. Read more »

On the Road: Inside Papua New Guinea

by Bill Murray

John Allen Chau, the missionary killed in the Andaman Islands in November, reopened the ‘uncontacted people’ debate. An advocacy group called Survival believes “Uncontacted peoples make a judgment that they are better off remaining uncontacted and independent, fending for themselves.” Most everybody else wants in, missionaries on their missions, doctors preventing disease, linguists to study imperiled languages.

Outside the Amazon basin most of the world’s uncontacted people live in New Guinea. The world’s second largest island is divided between Indonesia in the west where – as far as we know – all remaining uncontacted people live, and Papua New Guinea in the east.

My wife and I took a peek into the interior of Papua New Guinea twenty years ago. To be clear, we sailed up the Sepik River, in the north of the country, a region that has had contact with Europeans since their ships scouted the coast in the late 18th century. European settlers pressed indigenous labor into plantation work on the north coast from the late 19th and then, in the 1930s Australian gold prospectors trekked into the interior highlands and climbed out with eyes big as saucers, having made contact with nearly a million previously unknown highlanders. (Here is a remarkable video.)

Apprehensive but with faith in the civilizing force of the five or six intervening decades, our upper lips stiffened by the hotel minibar, we flew into the highland town of Mt. Hagen, gateway to the interior. Mt. Hagen comprised a single downtown street, a rugby field, airstrip, unkempt housing and not much more. Read more »

A future without boredom

by Sarah Firisen

“I’m bored!”. How often I would whine that as a kid. How often my kids would whine that to me. “Go out and play” my mother would reply. I probably said some version of the same thing to my kids. And I usually would go out and play. I’d go to the park and wander in the wooded area making up stories and collecting flowers that I’d later dry between the pages of books. Or I’d go and knock on a neighbor’s door to see if a friend could come out and play. Then we’d ride our bikes, or practice doing handstands against someone’s house. Sometimes we had water fights or snowball fights in winter. I suspect that kids today spend less time rectifying boredom in these kinds of ways, as indeed do most adults. After all, between streaming media and mobile devices, who really needs to be bored anymore. A game of Words with Friends or Candy Crush, or a new show on Netflix is never more than a tap away.

And now, with automation in the workplace easier and more affordable than ever, the prospect of work without boredom is increasingly before us. We all have those tasks that we hate, normally the boring repetitive ones that just have to get done. It’s the rare job that doesn’t have some degree of mundane administrative activities attached to it. But thanks to AI and particularly Robotic Process Automation (RPA), companies, and increasingly individual employees, are able to automate many of these tasks. Anything that is a rules based activity that can be done at a keyboard is a likely candidate for RPA bots. These bots can be run server-side for enterprise-wide processes or from your computer, mimicking whatever security access your company account has to systems on your computer and throughout the network, including accessing web pages and scraping information. Many hours can be taken out of a worker’s days, with tasks performed more quickly and more accurately by these bots, and with the added advantage of being able to run anytime of the day and night 24/7. Leaving many white collar workers with the not so distant prospect of never having to do those kinds of tasks again. And while it is very possible, and even likely, that many if not most companies see at least some of return on investment from this technology as a reduction in their workforce, at least the stated goal of many companies is to free their workers up to perform higher value work. Read more »

Is FDR the capital of the SK8board nation?

by Bill Benzon

FDR? You mean Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 32d president of the USofA?

Not quite. I mean FDR SK8park, in Philadelphia.

“SK8park”? What’s that? Can’t you spell?

Yes I can. Sound it out.

Oh, you mean “skate park”.

Right. SK8park, FDR SK8park. It’s at the southern end of Franklin Delano Park.

What’s this skateboard nation?

It’s a notion, if you will, a conceit, a turn of phrase, a way of speaking. Perhaps, if you will, an identity of sorts. And that’s what this is about.

The do-it-yourself “spot” or park is one facet of skateboarding. A bunch of skateboarders will find an out-of-the-way spot and remake it to their purposes, installing rails, half-pipes, banks, pyramids, and other features. Some of these are fairly small, like the one I ran into some years ago in Jersey City when I was photographing graffiti. Others are quite large, like Philly’s FDR, which is one of the largest and best-known DIY parks in the world.

FDR is festooned with graffiti and street art. Most of it is a grab-bag of standard stuff, tags, throw-ups, pieces of varying quality, posters and stickers and what have you. But some of it is of a different nature. That’s what I’m interested in.

As you read this, think of yourself as an explorer, an archeologist perhaps – Indiana Jones? You’ve come across a strange civilization. You’ve talked with a native or two, but mostly you’re examining the markings they’ve made. What do they mean?

Consider the photo  at the right (from 2014).  Up at the top it says “THIS IS LIVIN’”. Whatever ‘this’ is that, presumably, is what we see these two people doing, skate boarding. And they’re passionate about it. Read more »

Wittgenstein and religion

Stephen Law in Aeon:

When contemporary atheists criticise religious beliefs, they usually criticise beliefs that only crude religious thinkers embrace. Or so some people claim. The beliefs of the sophisticated religious believer, it’s suggested, are immune to such assaults.

Those making this kind of response often appeal to the later work of Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) – in particular, to remarks he made in Lectures and Conversations on Aesthetics,Psychology and Religious Belief (1967) and Culture and Value (1970), both published posthumously. Wittgenstein made a number of interesting, if rather cryptic, comments about religious belief in these books, and did seem to suggest that such atheist criticisms miss their mark.

What follows is a brief guide to the leading ‘Wittgensteinian’ defences of religious belief, rooted in Wittgenstein’s later work. Note that it’s contentious what Wittgenstein’s later views about religious belief are. The views I discuss are not necessarily Wittgenstein’s own, but attributed to him. Examine these different positions more closely, and we find little to reassure most religious believers that their beliefs are ‘off limits’ so far as atheist criticism is concerned. This is not to say that contemporary atheist criticisms of faith are good – they might not be. It’s just that going Wittgensteinian provides little immunity to such attacks.

More here.

Can Hot Peppers Make Me Happy?

Edith Zimmerman in The Cut:

Recently I’ve been experimenting with mood-modification through temperature extremes (like hot and cold bathing). The heat of a sauna, for instance, supposedly triggers a rush of pleasurable hormones — and so, apparently, does the heat of a chili pepper. I like hot sauce, and this seemed like a good enough excuse to experiment.

For a beginner’s lesson on the mood-altering properties of capsaicin (which is sometimes used in pain relief), I got in touch with Matt Gross, a travel writer and hot pepper expert who’s currently at work on a hot pepper documentary called Hot Pursuit. We met up one recent evening at his Brooklyn apartment to taste increasingly hot peppers while he fielded my questions about what it is that people like about pain.

One rationale is that it’s a form of “controlled risk,” or a way of enjoying the thrill of pain and fear without actually feeling threatened (roller coasters and scary movies do the same thing). Eating spicy peppers also triggers the release of dopamine and endorphins, which are two of the brain’s natural painkillers, and which can result in a kind of stressor-induced “high” (akin to “runner’s high”).

More here.

Akeel Bilgrami on the Politics India Needs

Akeel Bilgrami in Outlook:

The state in polities broadly described as ‘liberal democracies’ with political economies broadly described as ‘capitalist’ are characterised by a feature that Gramsci called ‘hegemony’. This is a technical term, not to be confused with the loose use of that term to connote ‘power and domination over another’. In Gramsci’s special sense, hegemony means that a class gets to be the ruling class by convincing all other classes that its interests are the interests of all other classes. It is because of this feature that such states avoid being authoritarian. Authoritarian states need to be authoritarian precisely because they lack Gramscian hegemony. It would follow from this that if a state that does possess hegemony in this sense is authoritarian, there is something compulsive about its authoritarianism. Now, what is interesting is that the present government in India keeps boastfully proclaiming that it possesses hegemony in this sense, that it has all the classes convinced that its policies are to their benefit. If so, one can only conclude that its widely rec­orded authoritarianism, therefore, is pathological.

There have been spectacular cases of this authoritarianism such as the recent arrest of five journalists and professors on charges that are virtually nonsensical. The liberal middle class has expressed some anger about these and, given how authoritarian the government has become, that took some courage. But Muslims and Dalits and, quite generally, the unprotected poor suffer from brutality and arbitrary arrest each day and this goes unreported even in the regional media. It is so pervasive that it is not news and it invokes nothing but indifference from the liberal middle class.

More here.

Charles Graeber: The Cure For Cancer Has Arrived

From 52 Insights:

So it’s 2018, and we’re at a pivotal point in the world of cancer. A breakthrough has been made, is this the revolution we’ve all been waiting for. Is the cut and burn era over?

You have to be so careful with this question because the idea of raising false hope is cruel. We’ve seen this time and time again, where there have been breakthroughs but it becomes one of the most shopworn headlines out there. The short answer is yes, this is the breakthrough.  This is a penicillin moment for this disease, which is to say we have fundamentally changed our understanding of the disease and of ourselves and how our immune system interacts or has forever failed to interact with cancer.

We understand that cancer takes advantage of the safety mechanism built into our immune system. Cancer uses a secret handshake to shut down the immune system and to say “I’m cool, I’m a normal body cell don’t attack me.” We count on these secret handshakes or checkpoints for the body not to be attacking ourselves all the time, to not be in a constant state of autoimmunity. The most dangerous thing in our bodies usually is our defences, and that has evolved over 500 million years, and they’re really good. And when they go wrong, it’s terrible.

The safety built into them are necessary. We now know cancer takes advantage of those safety checks and now we know we can block that. That understanding has been sought after for well over one hundred and fifty years. It’s something that puzzled humanity forever. And it was only understood recently.

More here.

Sunday Poem

Olive Oatman

It was the charcoal they couldn’t stand.
Sister Maddy tried and tried
to get it out—bleach and scrub
till my skin peeled—
but the marks stayed,
black as the stripes
on a hawk’s wing.

Maddy took my mirror away —
each day I saw those marks
took me back,
away from the silk bustled dresses,
the shoes like vises,
the bobs and nods and mouthy words.

Back to his camp by the river.
Smoke blue as morning,
children so quiet
I was afraid at first.
He brought me tied on the back of a horse.
They took my dress,
burned it and laughed,
put me in deerskin—so soft—
laid me on a bed of pine
with the skins circled ‘round,
a smell of earth and sweat and hide.

I choked on the smell,
couldn’t get used to the work.
Water from the river in bark buckets,
firewood in a clump on my back,
scraping the dead things he brought me —
blood, skin, and sinew
torn from the hide
like all I’d left behind.

Read more »