An Icon of the Left (Joseph Stiglitz) Tells Democrats: Don’t Go Socialist

Michael Hirsh in Foreign Policy:

But now that the backlash against Democratic centrism has made itself felt at the hands of an angry middle class— many of whom voted for Trump—and the party has tacked leftward in his direction, Stiglitz finds himself in the unusual position of urging caution. Stiglitz is worried that if Democrats shift too far left, they’ll be smeared as “socialists” and lose the 2020 presidential election—in which he believes the very institutions of Western civilization hang in the balance. For the famed economist, it is a consummate irony to be defending markets at all, since for years Stiglitz’s critics have faulted him for depending too much on government solutions.

Stiglitz spoke with Foreign Policy on the publication of his latest book, People, Power, and Profits: Progressive Capitalism for an Age of Discontent.

More here.

The hunt for dark matter

Philip Ball in Prospect:

Most of the Universe is missing and decades of searching have so far elicited no sign of it. For some scientists this is an embarrassment. For others it is a clue that might eventually push physics towards the next frontier of understanding. Either way, it is an odd situation.

Science has hunted in vain for the missing material. Its existence has never been detected directly, only inferred from hints. Yet if the rest of what we know about the way the cosmos is structured is right, it must be about five times more abundant than all the matter we can see in the Universe.

“Dark matter” is truly ghostly stuff. It is hidden far more profoundly than black holes, about which there was much excitement in April when a beautiful image of one was produced, showing a yellow-orange blob with a black void in the middle. Although, virtually by definition, we won’t ever truly “see” light-swallowing black holes, we can see their effects on the surrounding matter and space. More to the point, we are pretty sure we know what they are made from: ordinary matter, the stuff of stars.

Dark matter is something else entirely. And yet most scientists are agreed that this elusive material must exist: without it, they find it hard to see how we could be here at all. The gravitational pull that it exerts—the only impression it leaves on the visible Universe—is an essential ingredient for the formation of galaxies, stars and indeed planets like our own.

More here.

How the Rural-Urban Divide Became America’s Political Fault Line

Emily Badger in the New York Times:

It’s true across many industrialized democracies that rural areas lean conservative while cities tend to be more liberal, a pattern partly rooted in the history of workers’ parties that grew up where urban factories did.

But urban-rural polarization has become particularly acute in America: particularly entrenchedparticularly hostile, particularly lopsided in its consequences. Urban voters, and the party that has come to represent them, now routinely lose elections and power even when they win more votes.

Democrats have blamed the Senate, the Electoral College and gerrymandering for their disadvantage. But the problem runs deeper, according to Jonathan Rodden, a Stanford political scientist: The American form of government is uniquely structured to exacerbate the urban-rural divide — and to translate it into enduring bias against the Democratic voters, clustered at the left of the accompanying chart.

More here.

Remembering Critic and Novelist John Berger

Sasha Frere-Jones at Bookforum:

John Berger became a writer you might find on television because of Ways of Seeing, the 1972 BBC series that became a short and very famous book. The show presented observations now common to pop-culture reviews—publicity “proposes to each of us that we transform ourselves, or our lives, by buying something more”—in a place (a box!) that rarely admitted critique beyond yea or nay. The book version of Ways of Seeing, which combined photos and text in a montage format, is now a staple of critical-writing syllabi. Writers like Laura Mulvey and Rosalind Krauss wrote the definitive versions of theories Berger proposed, and dozens of critics have put in decades peeling back the semiotic layers of images. Berger simply made it seem plausible that there would be an audience—possibly a big one—for this kind of thinking. In May of 2017, four months after Berger’s death, feminist media scholar Jane Gaines wrote about Ways of Seeing: “We learned from him to see that basic assumptions about everything—work, play, art, commerce—are hidden in the surrounding culture of images.”

more here.

The Return of Hell

Ed Simon at The Baffler:

And we abolish the idea of hell at the very moment when it could be the most pertinent to us. An ironic reality in an era where the world becomes seemingly more hellish, when humanity has developed the ability to enact a type of burning punishment upon the earth itself. Journalist David Wallace-Wells in his terrifying new book about climate change The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming writes that “it is much, much worse, than you think.” Wallace-Wells goes onto describe how anthropogenic warming will result in a twenty-first century that sees coastal cities destroyed and refugees forced to migrate for survival, that will see famines across formerly verdant farm lands and the development of new epidemics that will kill millions, which will see wars fought over fresh water and wildfires scorching the wilderness. Climate change implies not just ecological collapse, but societal, political, and moral collapse as well. The science has been clear for over a generation, our reliance on fossil fuels has been hastening an industrial apocalypse of our own invention. Wallace-Wells is critical of what he describes as the “eerily banal language of climatology,” where the purposefully sober, logical, and rational arguments of empirical science have unintentionally helped to obscure the full extent of what some studying climate change now refer to as our coming “century of hell.” Better perhaps to have this discussion using the language of Revelation, where the horseman of pestilence, war, famine, and death are powered by carbon dioxide.

more here.

A Sealed Box of Poetry

Gill Partington at the LRB:

I received d.p. houston’s poetry collection Boîte de Vers in the post last week. It’s completely unreadable, but not in the sense that it’s bad. It could well be, but I have no idea because it comes in a sealed box, ‘in sloppy hommage to the spirit of Schrödinger’s Cat’. There are apparently five of these boxes in circulation; mine is lettered A. The precise nature of its contents is indeterminate. I could break the seal of strong black tape and open the box, but doing so would alter it. Not least because I would then be required to fill in the attached label with a cross or tick ‘to indicate whether or not the intrusion comes to be regretted’. It feels like a puzzle, or a personality test: what kind of person would open the box?

‘The books in the box are real and the work within almost entirely unknown in this country,’ the accompanying print-out says, with a tantalising picture of the contents unsealed, but face down.

more here.

Thursday Poem


…….Why is the river laughing?

Why, because the sun is tickling the river

…….Why is the river singing?

Because the skylark praised the river’s voice.

…….Why is the river cold?

It remembers being once loved by the snow.

…….How old is the river?

It’s the same age as the forever young springtime.

…….Why does the river never rest?

Well, you see it’s because the mother sea
is waiting for the river to come home.

by Shuntaro Tanikawa
The Vintage Book of Contemporary World Poetry
Vintage Books, 1996

Billion-year-old fossils set back evolution of earliest fungi

Heidi Ledford in Nature:

Minute fossils pulled from remote Arctic Canada could push back the first known appearance of fungi to about one billion years ago — more than 500 million years earlier than scientists had expected. These ur-fungi, described on 22 May in Nature1, are microscopic and surprisingly intricate, with filament-like structures. Chemical analyses suggest that the fossils contain chitin, a compound found in fungal cell walls. If that analysis holds up, it could reshape understanding of how fungi evolved and whether they might have facilitated the movement of plants onto land. But some researchers are not yet convinced that the finding is truly a fungus. “It looks to me as if there’s reason for believing it’s real at this point,” says Mary Berbee, a mycologist at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. “But more data would be really useful.”

Palaeobiologist Corentin Loron at the University of Liège, Belgium, and his colleagues found the fossils while exploring a region of Arctic Canada called the Grassy Bay Formation. The team had to travel to the study site, nestled amid the area’s dramatic cliffs, by helicopter. Because the rocks there formed without exposure to high temperatures and pressures, the fossils within them are remarkably preserved, says palaeobiologist Emmanuelle Javaux, Loron’s adviser at the University of Liège. From there, the team painstakingly sectioned the fossils into thin sheets that could be analysed with an electron microscope. Those images revealed branched filaments ending in spheres. The filaments were divided into segments by septae, walls that are found in some modern fungi.

The fossils were discovered in billion-year-old rock, and the presence of chitin in the specimens further persuaded the researchers that they were preserved fungi that died a billion years ago. The team named the fungus Ourasphaira giraldae.

More here.

A correspondence between David Sloan Wilson and Massimo Pigliucci on Human Cultural Evolution

David Sloan Wilson (and Massimo Pigliucci) in Letter:

Dear Massimo,

We go way back and share a love of philosophy in addition to biology. I was proud to be included in the “Altenberg 16” workshop that you organized to explore the Extended Evolutionary Synthesis, a term that you coined.  I have always regarded you as one of the most forward looking evolutionary thinkers.

I was therefore surprised by some of your recent comments on Twitter, which struck me as decidedly backward looking. The topic was ancient Greek history. I commented that it could benefit from a cultural multilevel selection perspective.  Your response—at least as I took it—was that you didn’t see how such an analysis would add to traditional scholarship on the topic. You also noted that the study of genetic evolution is hard and the study of human cultural evolution is harder still. You regarded much of the work on human cultural evolution as speculative adaptationist “just-so” story telling.

Really, Massimo! The study of humanity from an evolutionary perspective—including but not restricted to cultural evolution—lags behind the study of genetic evolution by nearly a century. This is not because the study of our species is more difficult—in many ways it is easier—but for more complicated and nuanced reasons.

More here.

The Wolfram | Alpha Story

Stephen Wolfram in his blog:

For me personally, the vision that became Wolfram|Alpha has a very long history. I first imagined creating something like it more than 47 years ago, when I was about 12 years old. Over the years, I built some powerful tools—most importantly the core of what’s now Wolfram Language. But it was only after some discoveries I made in basic science in the 1990s that I felt emboldened to actually try building what’s now Wolfram|Alpha.

It was—and still is—a daunting project. To take all areas of systematic knowledge and make them computable. To make it so that any question that can in principle be answered from knowledge accumulated by our civilization can actually be answered, immediately and automatically.

Leibniz had talked about something like this 350 years agoTuring 70 years ago. But while science fiction (think the Star Trek computer) had imagined it, and AI research had set it as a key goal, 50 years of actual work on question-answering had failed to deliver. And I didn’t know for sure if we were in the right decade—or even the right century—to be able to build what I wanted.

More here.

Can we escape surveillance culture?

Kenan Malik in Pandaemonium:

Sometimes, it is the very ordinariness of a scene that makes it terrifying. So it was with a clip from last week’s BBC documentary on facial recognition technology. It shows the Metropolitan police trialling a facial recognition system on an east London street

A man tries to avoid the cameras, covering his face by pulling up his fleece. He is stopped by the police and forced to have his photo taken. He is then fined £90 for ‘disorderly behaviour’. ‘What’s your suspicion?’ someone asks the police. ‘The fact that he’s walked past clearly masking his face from recognition,’ replies one of the plainclothes police operating the system.

If you want to protect your privacy, you must have something to hide. And if you actually do something to protect your privacy, well, that’s ‘disorderly behaviour’.

More here.

Jean Vanier: “The strong need the weak as much as the weak need the strong”

Maggie Fergusson in MIL:

LATE IN THE afternoon of June 22nd 1940, Hitler marched into a glade in the forest of Compiègne, 60km north of Paris. A giant swastika was unfurled as he saluted columns of Nazi troops, before hoisting himself into what had once been the private railway carriage of Marshal Foch. Inside this, on November 11th 1918, the Germans had signed the armistice that ended the first world war. So it was an apt spot for Hitler, sitting in Foch’s chair, and flanked by Goering, Ribbentrop and Hess, to witness the French surrender. Today, in a replica of the railway carriage, you can watch old newsreel of the Führer emerging into the evening sunshine and pulling on his leather gloves with an expression of grim satisfaction. This was a significant step towards the creation of his 1,000-year Reich. Four years later, of course, the Reich had collapsed, and Hitler was dead.

Less than an hour’s stroll through the beech trees, a rather different piece of history is unfolding. Fifty years ago this August, a 35-year-old ex-naval officer, Jean Vanier, bought a tumbledown cottage in Trosly-Breuil, a village on the edge of the forest. The cottage had no lavatory, one tap and a wood-burning stove, and he called it L’Arche—The Ark. He then invited two men with mental disabilities, Raphaël Simi and Philippe Seux, to leave the bleak, overcrowded asylum where they had spent most of their adult lives, and to make a home with him. “There was”, he says, looking back, “no huge idea of doing something special that might change the world.”

He thought that he, Raphaël and Philippe might remain one small family, able to fit comfortably into his battered car for outings. But, like the biblical mustard seed, L’Arche grew beyond all expectations. Friends came to visit, and were inspired by Jean Vanier’s insistence that those with mental disabilities have gifts that many “normal” people lack. More houses were bought, more men and women rescued from institutions. Today, there are L’Arche communities in every continent of the world—146 of them, in 35 countries, from Bangladesh to Burkina Faso, Ireland to the Ivory Coast, Palestine to the Philippines.

More here.

These tiny microbes are munching away at plastic waste in the ocean

Helen Santoro in Science:

Plastic makes up nearly 70% of all ocean litter, putting countless aquatic species at risk. But there is a tiny bit of hope—a teeny, tiny one to be precise: Scientists have discovered that microscopic marine microbes are eating away at the plastic, causing trash to slowly break down.

To conduct the study, researchers collected weathered plastic from two different beaches in Chania, Greece. The litter had already been exposed to the sun and undergone chemical changes that caused it to become more brittle, all of which needs to happen before the microbes start to munch on the plastic. The pieces were either polyethylene, the most popular plastic and the one found in products such as grocery bags and shampoo bottles, or polystyrene, a hard plastic found in food packaging and electronics. The team immersed both in saltwater with either naturally occurring ocean microbes or engineered microbes that were enhanced with carbon-eating microbe strains and could survive solely off of the carbon in plastic. Scientists then analyzed changes in the materials over a period of 5 months.

Both types of plastic lost a significant amount of weight after being exposed to the natural and engineered microbes, scientists reported in April in the Journal of Hazardous Materials. The microbes further changed the chemical makeup of the material, causing the polyethylene’s weight to go down by 7% and the polystyrene’s weight to go down by 11%. These findings may offer a new strategy to help combat ocean pollution: Deploy marine microbes to eat up the trash. However, researchers still need to measure how effective these microbes would be on a global scale.

More here.

Wednesday Poem


In only a few months
there begin to be fissures
in what we remember,
and within a year or two,
the facts break apart
one from another
and slowly begin to shift
and turn, grinding,
pushing up over each other
until their shapes
have been changed
and the past has become
a new world.
And after many years,
even a love affair,
one lush green island
all to itself,
perfectly detailed
with even a candle
softly lighting a smile,
may slide under the waves
like Atlantis,
scarcely rippling the heart.

by Ted Kooser,
Delights and Shadows
Copper Canyon Press, 2014

When Is An American Symphony Not American Enough?

Sudip Bose at The American Scholar:

It’s amazing that this landmark symphony could have been so easily forgotten. As with the other seminal New Englanders—George Whitefield Chadwick, Horatio Parker, and Edward MacDowell, among them—modernism killed off Paine’s music. And with the ascendancy of American vernacular forms, reflected in the music of Charles Ives, Aaron Copland, and others, any music arising from the German Romantic tradition could be ridiculed and ignored. Paine may have been the acknowledged dean of a New England school, but he could not be comfortably located with any American school. Even Paine’s student Richard Aldrich, writing in the early 20th century, argued that Paine’s music, despite its “fertility,” “genuine warmth,” “spontaneity of invention,” and “fine harmonic feeling,” did not “disclose ‘American’ characteristics.” But what in Paine’s time and cultural milieu would have constituted an American characteristic?

more here.

Somehow I Became Respectable

John Waters at the Paris Review:

Somehow I became respectable. I don’t know how—the last film I directed got some terrible reviews and was rated NC-17. Six people in my personal phone book have been sentenced to life in prison. I did an art piece called Twelve Assholes and a Dirty Foot, which is composed of close-ups from porn films, yet a museum now has it in their permanent collection and nobody got mad. What the hell has happened?

I used to be despised but now I’m asked to give commencement addresses at prestigious colleges, attend career retrospectives at both the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the British Film Institute, and I even got a medal from the French government for “furthering the arts in France.” This cockeyed maturity is driving me crazy!

Suddenly the worst thing that can happen to a creative person has happened to me. I am accepted.

more here.

A Memoir of Witness and Resistance

Alex von Tunzelmann at Literary Review:

There is a lot of horror in this book. People are thrown from helicopters into the sea, their arms tied behind their backs. A colonel grinds up his victims’ bodies and feeds them to his dogs. Forché finds mutilated corpses by the side of the road. She visits a prison where men are kept in cages the size of washing machines. She and a friend are pursued by an escuadrón de la muerte (death squad). Later, she meets a man who was a member of one such squad, who recalls the sound of bubbles as he cut his victims’ throats.

‘Look at this. Remember this. Try to see.’ This is Vides’s constant refrain. Yet he permits her to see little of himself. In a tantalising scene, he shows her ‘one place’ he lives. He offers her a bed with a poster of Che Guevara over it, pulling back the covers to reveal an AK-47. ‘Someone else also lives here,’ he says vaguely. She dares not ask about the gun, but mentions the poster of Che. ‘Yes, well, I have posters of Mussolini too, if the need arises,’ he replies.

more here.

Critics Parul Sehgal and Teju Cole on the changing authority of words

John Ortved in Document:

Why do we like what we like? The books, movies, photos, and artworks that form our perspective—who puts them in front of us? One answer is the critic, that cipher of taste who places art in its various corridors, then augments, defines, degrades, and ultimately shapes the works that shape us. In times when the public’s eye travels with ever more scope but not necessarily more depth, criticism, the act of choosing—and so much more—becomes more important than ever. It’s for this reason that so many eyes are turning to Parul Sehgal and Teju Cole, two critics—as well as editors, essayists, and artists—challenging not only us but art forms themselves.

At only 37, Sehgal is re-centering literature from her position as literary critic and columnist at The New York Times. (She was hired after the Times’s chief literary critic, Michiko Kakutani, stepped down in 2017). Her choice of subjects and focused, artful prose is giving space to works by marginalized authors, including women and people of color, as well as international identities and cultures historically left out of the canon. As we continue to look to the written word for clarity, hope, and maybe even answers, work by Sehgal—who teaches at Columbia University and won the 2010 Nona Balakian Award from the National Book Critics Circle—has become nothing short of essential reading.

Meanwhile, Cole is directing our gaze from various esteemed perches, be it his role as the first Gore Vidal Professor of the Practice of Creative Writing at Harvard, his job as the photography critic for The New York Times Magazine, as the PEN/Hemingway Award-winning author of Open City, or as an internationally exhibited photographer. Our eyes follow his, even if we’re not aware of it.

More here.