How not to regulate big tech

Kenan Malik in Pandaemonium:

The Directive on Copyright in the Digital Single Market is a bland name for a dreadful piece of law likely to reshape our use of the internet. “The transformation of the internet from an open platform for sharing and innovation into a tool for the automated surveillance and control of its users,” was how Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the worldwide web, and 70 other technology pioneers described it in a letter to the president of the European parliament last year. And they’re right.

The two most controversial parts of the new directive are articles 11 and 13 (though, just to complicate matters, in the final law, these have become articles 15 and 17). Article 11, dubbed a “link tax”, obliges search engines and news aggregate platforms to pay for use of snippets from publishers. Article 13 holds platforms, such as Google and YouTube, responsible for material posted without copyright permission and enforces penalties for failure to block infringing content.

Online platforms, the EU argues, make huge profits by either hosting or linking to creative content without funnelling that cash back to the creators. As a writer, I love to be paid for my work and anything to squeeze more money out of every word I write, the better. The trouble is that the EU directive will do little for “content creators” like me. What it will do is constrain my use of the internet.

More here.

Sequoyah’s syllabary for the Cherokee language

Stan Carey in Sentence First:

Jared Diamond’s book Guns, Germs and Steel has an engrossing chapter on the evolution of writing as a communication technology. It includes a brief account of the development of a syllabary – a set of written characters that represent syllables – for the Cherokee language. The syllabary looks like this:

Some of the signs (or ‘syllabograms’) will look familiar, others like variations of familiar shapes. But any similarity to the Roman, Greek, and Hebrew alphabets is misleading. For example, in a nice demonstration of the arbitrariness of the sign, the first three, RDW, encode the sounds eala. So what’s going on?

I’ll let Diamond tell most of the story. First, a step back.

More here.

The Democracy Poll: Americans and the Economy

From the editors of Democracy:

We are at an inflection point in the Democratic Party’s history, and in the economic history of the country; similar, perhaps, to the mid-1930s and the late-1970s. In the first period, the country embraced Keynesian, demand-side economics. In the second, during a time of pummeling inflation and wage stagnation, the country turned away from Keynes and toward Milton Friedman and supply-side economics.

To us, on the merits, the two systems aren’t close. Keynesian principles helped drive the greatest era of expansion, prosperity, and equality the United States has ever known. Supply-side economics has been good for the top 10 or 15 percent, great for the top 1 percent, but rather bad for everyone else. Yet, because it’s done so well for the people who have money, finance political campaigns, and run things, and because the Democratic Party never quite made the case for an alternate theory of growth (despite this journal’s frequent efforts), supply-side has hung around well past its sell-by date.

That date may finally have come. There are numerous signs that the American people are beginning to question the supply-side assumptions that dominated our economic debates for four decades. Are the signs real?

More here.

At The KGB Spy Museum

Amber A’Lee Frost at The Baffler:

I had recently been forced to break off a collaboration with another writer over her Russiagate sympathies. Though she was smart and talented, I didn’t feel I could work with someone who considered Russian “interference” in the 2016 election to be a politically significant topic or a major compromise to what passes for American democracy these days. I consider the recent obsession with Russia a sort of liberal hysteria that feeds off of resentment over losing the election to Trump—the nadir of elite entitlement and a pathological state of denial over the fact that their candidate was a dud, and that the electorate rightly holds the Democratic Party in contempt. It’s the bitter delusion of an asshole who lost his girl to a different kind of asshole, and responds with incredulity and conspiratorial rage. What’s more, it’s clearly an attempt to conjure up a totally anachronistic paranoia over the late Soviet Union, a country that hasn’t even existed for nearly thirty years.

Nonetheless, America’s recently reinvigorated Russophobia doesn’t seem a large or lucrative enough phenomenon for the “unnamed American entrepreneur” funding the KGB museum to eke out a profit (if you’re in the market for a Chelsea flat above a KGB Spy Museum, you can get a one-bedroom for just shy of $1.9 million).

more here.

Cloning The Sequoia

James Pogue at The Believer:

Here are some things you can learn from Peattie: sequoias are, of course, the largest of all trees, and the most massive freestanding organisms in the world. They live as long as three thousand five hundred years, longer than all trees but the Chilean alerce and the bristlecone pine, which grows east of here, over the Sierra crest and across the Owens Valley. I like to stand at certain vantage points in the Sierras and imagine that I can look north to the three-thousand-year-old Bennett juniper, west to the sequoias, east to the bristlecones, and south to the ancient clonal stands of Mojavean creosote bush, and be somehow at the center of a circle of inexplicable, primordial genetic wisdom.

You will never find a lonely old-growth sequoia, because they live in groves, of which only seventy or so still survive. You don’t have to be a mystic to think that this is because they are sociable old trees—we are only now learning how plants communicate underground and through aerosols they emit, and in a sequoia grove it doesn’t take long to notice they are working together to form a special environment: a grove provides an airy break from the denser, darker, and more juvenile west-slope forest; it is a place where “the bright world,” as Peattie puts it, “is never shut away.”

more here.

Ruskin and The Weather

Brian Dillon at The Paris Review:

It’s said the British never stop remarking on their weather. How will they cope in decades to come, when life is all weather, all the time? The country ran a brief test a few weeks ago: in mid- to late February the sun blazed, spring surprised itself, and the temperature in London, where I live, reached over 20°C (68°F). Boon or portent? Meteorological holiday or climate-change hell? Beautiful or sublime? Britons could not agree. It’s now mid-March, and I was awoken at five this morning by rattling windows and the rising shriek of a storm called Gareth (not the direst of names). Abruptly, spring is canceled, and London’s squares are littered with the corpses of premature blossoms.

As the wind died in the morning, I wandered around to Finsbury Circus, on the north side of which the London Institution once stood. It was here, on February 4 and February 11, 1884, that the essayist and art critic John Ruskin (who was born two hundred years ago last month) delivered “The Storm-Cloud of the Nineteenth Century”: a pair of apocalyptic lectures on modern weather.

more here.

Wednesday Poem

Mary Brunton

Let us walk to the waterfall before lunch
and sail the paper boats we made yesterday;
let us not put away that afternoon of losses
when the August sunshine belted onto the Kerry slate roof
and cooked the lichen to fine, sallow dust.
From out of nowhere, I saw you shatter
the blank white page to an angle
and all my flat earth certitudes fell away,
as any waterfall collapses into its pool.
You see, I wanted to believe more than you thought,
but the plain fact of how your fingers
worked the terrible geometries into being
frightened me, the way a child is frightened
by death without knowing why.
This, though, was a coming into the world.
It had not occurred to me to think
you would know how to do such a thing.
You showed me the proper way of it
and so you are changed to me and I to you,
the way that creases remain always
in a sheet of paper that has once been folded.

by John Stammers
from Stolen Love Behaviour
publisher: Picador, 2005
ISBN: 0330433865

Vladimir Nabokov, Literary Refugee

Stacy Schiff in The New York Times:

Amid frantic, last-minute negotiations, under a spray of machine-gun fire, Vladimir Nabokov fled Russia 100 years ago this week. His family had sought refuge from the Bolsheviks in the Crimean peninsula; those forces now made a vicious descent from the north. The chaos on the pier at Sebastopol could not match the scene that met the last of the Russian imperial family, evacuated the same week: In Yalta, terrified families mobbed a quay littered with abandoned cars. Nor were the Nabokovs’ accommodations as good. The Romanovs made their escape on a British man-of-war. The Nabokovs crowded into a filthy Greek cargo ship. Overrun by refugees, Constantinople turned them away. For several days they lurched about on a rough sea, subsisting on dog biscuits, sleeping on benches. Only the family jewelry traveled comfortably, nestled in a tin of talcum powder. On his 20th birthday, Nabokov disembarked finally in Athens. He would never again set eyes on Russia.

At the time of the evacuation he had spent 16 quiet months in the Crimea, the last speck of Russia in White hands. Already the Bolsheviks had murdered any number of harmless people; Nabokov’s jurist father, as his son would later note, was anything but harmless. In February 1917 riots had delivered a revolution. The czar abdicated, replaced by a liberal government, swept into power on a tide of popular support. Nabokov’s father, Vladimir Dmitrievich, played a prominent role in that administration. Months afterward Lenin returned from exile, disembarking at St. Petersburg’s Finland Station. Within the year, what had begun as an idealistic, progressive uprising would end — like Iran’s, like Egypt’s — in totalitarianism. With Lenin arrived another 20th-century staple: a one-party system in which hacks and henchmen replaced the competent and qualified.

The terror began immediately.

More here.

AI for the M.D

Peter Szolovits in Science:

In 1970 in The New England Journal of Medicine, William Schwartz predicted that by the year 2000, much of the intellectual function of medicine could be either taken over or at least substantially augmented by “expert systems”—a branch of artificial intelligence (AI). Schwartz hoped that the medical school curriculum would be “redirected toward the social and psychologic aspects of health care” and that medical schools would attract applicants interested in “behavioral and social sciences and … the information sciences and their application to medicine.” But Schwartz’s dream of smart medical technologies, for the most part, remains just that. Eric Topol, however, is optimistic about the future of health care. In Deep Medicine, he anticipates that new machine learning technologies will improve the precision and accuracy of disease diagnosis, thus providing a better way to identify the best therapies. Like Schwartz, he hopes that the time freed up by these approaches will be devoted to reviving humane medical practices.

…Last, Topol turns to his vision of how AI can provide a virtual medical assistant to clinicians and how these technologies can lead to the resurgence of the empathy-based care that Topol—and many others—miss in current health care. “AI can help achieve the gift of time with patients,” and that extra time can develop empathy, which “is not something machines can truly simulate.” The great contribution of this book is that Topol synthesizes the fragmentary views that we who work in this field gain from day-to-day reading into a cohesive vision of a future in which medical care is about human care. Alas, achieving that depends on much more than improved technological support for clinical medicine. Hopefully, the economic and administrative forces that have done much to frustrate other recent visionaries will not derail this new plan.

More here.

Auden on No-Platforming Pound

Edward Mendelson in the New York Review of Books:

Journalist and writer Ezra Pound, composing profacist commentaries on stationary emblazoned with Mussolini’s motto Liberty is a Duty, Not a Right. (Photo by Carl Mydans/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

In 1945, when Bennett Cerf of Random House was preparing to send to the printer An Anthology of Famous English and American Poetry, edited by William Rose Benét and Conrad Aiken for the Modern Library series, he omitted twelve early poems by Ezra Pound that Aiken had included in a 1927 anthology on which the new book had been based. In place of the poems, a note explained that, over Aiken’s protest, the publishers “flatly refused at this time to include a single line of Mr. Ezra Pound. This is a statement that the publishers are not only willing but delighted to print.”

In the years since Pound wrote those poems, he had become notorious for his fascist politics, florid anti-Semitism and racism, and hero-worshipping praise for Hitler and Mussolini. He stayed in Italy during the war, insisting on making radio broadcasts to American troops, urging them to drop their weapons and stop fighting on behalf of Jews and everyone else whom Pound hated. For these broadcasts, he was arrested after the war and charged with treason against the United States. At the end of 1945, he was awaiting trial in Washington, D.C.

In the eyes of many writers at the time, Cerf’s refusal to reprint Pound’s poems adopted the same logic that the Nazis had used when burning books by Jews and leftists.

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Insurance could become unaffordable, due to climate change

Arthur Neslen in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists:

Insurers have warned that climate change could make coverage for ordinary people unaffordable, after one of the world’s largest reinsurance firms blamed global warming for $24 billion of losses in the Californian wildfires. (Loosely speaking, reinsurance companies provide insurance for insurance companies).

Ernst Rauch, Munich Re’s chief climatologist, told The Guardian that the costs could soon be widely felt, with premium rises already under discussion with clients holding asset concentrations in vulnerable parts of the state.

“If the risk from wildfires, flooding, storms or hail is increasing, then the only sustainable option we have is to adjust our risk prices accordingly. In the long run it might become a social issue,” he said after Munich Re published a report into climate change’s impact on wildfires. “Affordability is so critical [because] some people on low and average incomes in some regions will no longer be able to buy insurance.”

The lion’s share of California’s 20 worst forest blazes since the 1930s have occurred this millennium, in years characterised by abnormally high summer temperatures and “exceptional dryness” between May and October, according to a new analysis by Munich Re, one of the world’s largest re-insurers.

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The Moral Center of Meritocracy Collapses

Matthew Stewart in The Atlantic:

Cyclists traverse the main quad on Stanford University’s campus.

You are shocked—shocked—I know. According to the FBI, a network of 33 wealthy parents engaged in a massive fraud to buy places for their children at elite colleges. Didn’t they realize that there are many perfectly legal ways to do that?

You can hire a legitimate college counselor for $10,000 and up. You can get test prep for anything from $120 to $375 an hour. You can buy personal coaches, fencing equipment, and squash-club memberships, often for less than the price of a Sub-Zero refrigerator. You can arrange for unpaid internships that will allow Junior to shine as a true humanitarian. You can game your way into a great private school—it’s so much easier to play the angles in kindergarten or sixth grade than in college admissions. If all else fails, you can just make a big donation to the school of your choice.

Have the rich gotten dumber? Or are they getting cheaper? Actually, the affidavit suggests that there are two deeply connected structural problems. The first is that the price of admission has gone up. The second is that the moral center of the meritocracy has collapsed.

More here.

Ann Beattie in Millennial Land

Nicholas Dames at Public Books:

No word haunts discussions of Ann Beattie like the word generation. Once upon a time, back when novelists still had the luxury of holding their publicity at a skeptical distance—let’s call it the 1980s—the word came with a prepackaged irony: to be the “voice of a generation” sounded as uncool and pathos-drenched as to be a “talk show legend” or “star of stage and screen.” But that was what she was called, from 1976, with the publication of her first novel, Chilly Scenes of Winter, and story collection, Distortions. Her much-discussed sharp, flat style—banalities rubbed so hard that they reflected—was immediately identified as the prose equivalent of a post-OPEC-embargo, post-Watergate cohort. Beattie, of course, denied that she was her generation’s voice. After all, who would want to be such a thing—and of such a cohort? Yet, the term would be ritually reapplied with each new book. This is, you could say, because the entanglement of disavowal and dependence was one of her generation’s defining dances.

more here.

Yve-Alain Bois on Robert Ryman

Yves-Alain Bois at Artforum:

My first encounter with him is a case in point. It was during the installation of his retrospective at the Centre Pompidou in 1981. Ryman sat on top of a large unopened crate, alone in the vast Galeries Contemporaines on the ground floor. Many works were resting against the walls; others were in chariots. Crates and wrapping material were strewn everywhere. After introducing myself I asked him what he was doing. “Waiting,” he said calmly. “Waiting for the electricians to fix the lighting.” Finding out that he had been doing so for a good half hour, I concluded that something was wrong, perhaps lost in translation—surely the electricians’ coffee or cigarette break was not supposed to take that long—and I rushed upstairs to the curatorial office. (At the time, it was located on the third floor.) It turned out that the electricians were waiting elsewhere for Ryman’s call, to be transmitted via the guard in attendance, that he was ready for them to come. They were waiting for his signal that he had determined where the paintings should hang; he was waiting for them to provide absolutely evenly lit walls so that he could start experimenting with the placement of his works.

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Knausgaard on Munch

Robert Ferguson at Literary Review:

Knausgaard has perfected the confessional, ‘speaking’ style of writing that his fellow countryman Knut Hamsun introduced into modern Western literature in the 1890s with novels like Hunger and Mysteries. The style was adopted with great success by Henry Miller, and Miller is probably the confessional novelist with whom Knausgaard can most profitably be compared. Writing in Inside the Whale in 1940 about Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, George Orwell described the experience of feeling that ‘he knows all about me, he wrote this specifically for me’. Orwell praised the healthy and liberating effect of reading Miller during the politically tense 1930s, when it seemed to him that people had begun to censor their own thoughts (‘Ought I to be thinking this?’). Knausgaard’s bold self-acceptance performs a similar function for our own nervous times. His prose is direct. It darts forward. Suddenly he finds himself making a massive assertion. He stops, doubles back on himself, examines the assertion, and either qualifies or reinforces it before moving on. His artistic credo, which he believes he shares with Munch, is senk lista (‘lower the bar’): the important thing is just to keep on writing, in the same way that for Munch all that mattered was to keep on painting. The quality can take care of itself.

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The meaning of Miró’s doodles

Tim Smith-Laing in MIL:

At first glance Joan Miró’s painting from 1924, “The Hunter, Catalan Landscape”, looks like a doodle. Imagine it in biro rather than oil paints, and it’s something you might have scribbled during a particularly boring meeting. More than that, it is what people scrawl when they can’t draw: a stick-man, wobbly waves and V-shaped birds, surrounded by blobs, geometric shapes, a bit of lettering. Miró paints these things better than we might, but it remains a doodly mess. But there is method – a story of sorts – in his mess. Miró helpfully drew up an explanatory list of all 58 items in his picture. Gallery blurbs will tell you that they include the hunter (the stick-man), with his rifle (black cone), heading off to cook his rabbit (red-and-yellow whiskered creature), on his grill (squiggly thing with the little flame on the right-hand side). That lettering – sard – at the bottom is for “sardine”, because there’s a sardine skeleton there too, which the hunter has just eaten. And that blob with an eyeball is a carob tree, naturally.

This analysis shouldn’t distract from the fact that this painting is about the fun of mess and childishness. Look on the left and you will see element no.28: that little brown-black coil. It is a turd. Its appearance is unexpected – we tend to assume art will be serious. But it is an in-joke from Miró, a Catalan painter working mostly for snooty French buyers. Educated art-lovers don’t expect to pay good money to see literal crap, so most will miss it, but it would catch the eye of any Catalan peasant. In Catalonia, nothing is so serious or sacred that it can avoid contact with the human bowel. Nativity scenes traditionally include a figure called “El Caganer”, or “The Crapper”, squatting and straining while the Son of God lies fresh in his manger.

Most importantly, though, there is loveliness in all this playful doodling. Look again, and you see how carefully the “mess” of it all is done, how neatly and beautifully the colours and shapes fit and float together. This is what you get when you take silliness seriously.

More here.

How the brain fights off fears that return to haunt us

From Phys.Org:

Neuroscientists at The University of Texas at Austin have discovered a group of cells in the brain that are responsible when a frightening memory re-emerges unexpectedly, like Michael Myers in every “Halloween” movie. The finding could lead to new recommendations about when and how often certain therapies are deployed for the treatment of anxiety, phobias and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In the new paper, out today in the journal Nature Neuroscience, researchers describe identifying “extinction neurons,” which suppress fearful memories when they are activated or allow fearful memories to return when they are not. Since the time of Pavlov and his dogs, scientists have known that memories we thought we had put behind us can pop up at inconvenient times, triggering what is known as spontaneous recovery, a form of relapse. What they didn’t know was why it happened. “There is frequently a relapse of the original fear, but we knew very little about the mechanisms,” said Michael Drew, associate professor of neuroscience and the senior author of the study. “These kinds of studies can help us understand the potential cause of disorders, like anxiety and PTSD, and they can also help us understand potential treatments.”

One of the surprises to Drew and his team was finding that brain cells that suppress fear memories hid in the hippocampus. Traditionally, scientists associate fear with another part of the brain, the amygdala. The hippocampus, responsible for many aspects of memory and spatial navigation, seems to play an important role in contextualizing fear, for example, by tying fearful memories to the place where they happened. The discovery may help explain why one of the leading ways to treat fear-based disorders, , sometimes stops working. Exposure  promotes the formation of new memories of safety that can override an original fear memory. For example, if someone becomes afraid of spiders after being bitten by one, he might undertake exposure therapy by letting a harmless spider crawl on him. The safe memories are called “extinction memories.”

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Logic And Emotion: Notes On Bach

by Anitra Pavlico

Springtime always reminds me of Johann Sebastian Bach. When I was young, my father coaxed me to go to a concert celebrating Bach’s 300th birthday. I used to think it was arcane knowledge, Bach’s date of birth, but Google recently featured it on their homepage–he would have been 334 on March 21. He belongs to everyone, even if it feels as if he is communicating to you personally. His music speaks of emotion, vitality, and renewal, which makes it fitting that his birth rings in the spring. Scholars and performers have of course written much about Bach, so I mainly would like to write about my own experiences and to comment on his Well-Tempered Clavier, two volumes of preludes and fugues in each of the keys of the scale, meant at least in part for students learning keyboard. It is much more than exercises, though; as the critic Harold Schonberg wrote, “if music does have a Bible, it is Book I of the Well-Tempered Clavier.”

There is a terrific video on YouTube of András Schiff playing Book I of the Well-Tempered Clavier live at The Proms in 2017. It is as good an accompaniment to this article as any. Even Schiff’s facial expressions tell a story about the emotion inherent in this music. Bach has sometimes been played in a dry, clinical, “sewing machine” style, as Schonberg described in his 1972 column for the New York Times to mark the Well-Tempered Clavier’s 250th anniversary. Schonberg notes, however, that Bach would not have played it that way himself: “His pupils testified that he was always interested in the emotional content of a piece — the Affekt.

The conductor John Eliot Gardiner writes in Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven that “Bach’s keyboard works maintain a tension — born of restraint and obedience to self-set conventions — between form (which we might describe variously as cool, severe, unbending, narrow or complex) and content (passionate or intense) more palpably and obviously than does his texted music.” The Well-Tempered Clavier pieces reflect this tension, as beneath the orderly facade lies deep emotion. The first prelude of Book I, in C major, is celestial in its stillness and simplicity. At the same time, it contains near-constant striving: delicious, arpeggiated chords are ever-moving to the end goal of C major where they began. This is one to listen to when you want to believe that life is pure, simple, and good, but you suspect danger lurks under the surface. It is followed by the C minor prelude, in contrast, which is dangerous throughout. After that journey, the accompanying C minor fugue’s eventual arrival at C major is cathartic. Read more »