Saturday, August 24, 2019

London’s Memorial Church Ruins

Altair Brandon-Salmon at Commonweal:

In the booklet’s foreword, the Very Reverend W. R. Matthews, then the Dean of St. Paul’s, claimed that “the devastation of war has given us an opportunity which will never come again.” This optimism echoed sentiments expressed during the war itself. The country would turn bombsites into social housing and hospitals, with a few churches left as memorials to the carnage of the home front. (As Brian Foss has pointed out, it wasn’t until September 1941 that frontline casualties outnumbered civilian deaths in Britain.) The short booklet is full of halftone illustrations, architectural plans, and garden plans, showing how to transform destroyed buildings into “ruins.” In one article, Hugh Casson argued that “every stone—whether fallen or in place—is a fragment of the past, part of the pattern of history.” Churches such as St. Dunstan and Christ Church, Newgate Street, scarred by the Great Fire of London and the Blitz, are now living monuments not just to the bombs and fires, but to London’s long history of transformation. Casson worried about a time when “all traces of war damage will have gone, and its strange beauty vanished from our streets…and with their going the ordeal through which we passed will seem remote, unreal, perhaps forgotten.”

more here.

Can Chess Survive Artificial Intelligence?

Yoni Wilkenfeld at The New Atlantis:

Last August, two dozen of the strongest chess players in the world met for a new kind of tournament. The ground rules were unforgiving: Each player would start with only fifteen minutes on the clock per game, competing in scores of back-to-back games against all the others multiple times. Players were eliminated in stages until only two remained, who would go on to play two hundred games to decide the champion. Competitors hailed from around the world, though a sizeable minority were American. All would face the constant scrutiny of fans through an online broadcast of the tournament on Twitch, a streaming website. A month of grueling play later, a victor emerged: Stockfish 220818, the strongest chess computer to date.

While many past computer chess competitions had the human programmers convene in person, in the Computer Chess Championship, teams submitted their software to run on the servers of, which hosted the event. The Twitch feed showed not only the live game play, but “a real-time peek into” each program’s “thinking process and the lines they are considering,” said a post announcing the tournament. The website ran a single game at a time, back to back, with uninterrupted play for a month.

more here.

David Hammons Taunts the Art World

Rachel Wetzler at Art in America:

The difficulty of Hammons’s work is that it seems to preempt any possible critical response and offer up an implicit rebuttal. This was most evident in the centerpiece of the show, a grid of tents pitched in the gallery’s interior courtyard, which is located between the entrance to the gallery’s chic, industrial compound and the exhibition spaces. Each tent bore a stenciled threat: this could be u. My first reaction was dismissive; the installation seemed too obvious, too lazily reliant on a contextual friction that was intended to point to a larger one, since the gallery—a sign of advanced gentrification if ever there was one—sits just a few blocks from the homeless encampments of Skid Row. OK, we’re all complicit: now what?

But the installation posed a problem for would-be visitors: to walk right by the piece en route to the exhibition would reproduce a kind of everyday callousness; to solemnly admire it would be perverse and self-congratulatory; and to feel offended by its hypocrisy or aestheticization of a social crisis would be equally so: imagine being preoccupied by the dubious politics of an artwork about homelessness when there’s a real tent city down the street—care about that instead. 

more here.

Culture Worriers: The libertarian struggle to understand contemporary art

Rachel Wetzler in The Baffler:

THE CATO INSTITUTE, “a public policy research organization dedicated to the principles of individual liberty, limited government, free markets, and peace,” was founded in 1977 by the Koch brothers, the anarcho-capitalist economist Murray Rothbard, and former Libertarian Party national chair Ed Crane. At the time, libertarianism was still considered a fringe ideology for paranoid California eccentrics, derided even by one of their own patron saints, Ayn Rand, as a bunch of unserious “hippies of the right.” In order to bring Austrian economic theory and “minarchism” into the political mainstream, libertarianism needed a rebrand; the answer was naturally a Washington think tank, where its vision of a world of unfettered capitalist exchange could be tidily packaged into incremental policy proposals and fed to right-wing legislators.

Though Cato rejects the label “right-wing,” loudly proclaiming its independence from any political party and its commitment to fighting all efforts to expand state power, whether it comes in the form of Obamacare or the Iraq War, its relationship with the GOP has largely been more symbiotic than combative. Republicans can forgive Cato’s advocacy for, say, the decriminalization of drugs as a naïve and misplaced ideological rigidity because it comes with an economic agenda they can get behind: drastic tax cuts, the privatization of virtually all social services, and the elimination of anything that might get in the way of free trade, from environmental regulations to child labor laws. Cato denies the gravity of climate change (which it dismisses as pseudoscientific alarmism), believes in the right of business owners to discriminate on the basis of race, and ardently defends corporate personhood (“So What if Corporations Aren’t People?” reads the inadvertently hilarious title of a law review paper by Cato legal scholar Ilya Shapiro in support of the Citizens United decision).

More here.

What Do You Do When You’re Alone

Olivia Laing in IAI News:

Loss is a cousin of loneliness. They intersect and overlap, and so it’s not surprising that a work of mourning might invoke a feeling of aloneness, of separation. Mortality is lonely. Physical existence is lonely by its nature, stuck in a body that’s moving inexorably towards decay, shrinking, wastage and fracture. Then there’s the loneliness of bereavement, the loneliness of lost or damaged love, of missing one or many specific people, the lone­liness of mourning.

Loneliness as a desire for closeness, for joining up, joining in, joining together, for gathering what has otherwise been sundered, abandoned, broken or left in isolation. Loneliness as a longing for integration, for a sense of feeling whole. It’s a funny business, threading things together, patching them up with cotton or string. Practical, but also symbolic, a work of the hands and the psyche alike. One of the most thoughtful accounts of the meanings contained in activities of this kind is provided by the psychoanalyst and paediatrician D. W. Winnicott, an heir to the work of Melanie Klein. Winnicott began his psychoanalytic career treating evacuee children during the Second World War. He worked lifelong on attachment and separation, developing along the way the concept of the transitional object, of holding, and of false and real selves, and how they develop in response to environments of danger and of safety.

In Playing and Reality, he describes the case of a small boy whose mother repeatedly left him to go into hospital, first to have his baby sister and then to receive treatment for depression. In the wake of these experiences, the boy became obsessed with string, using it to tie the furniture in the house together, knotting tables to chairs, yoking cushions to the fireplace. On one alarming occasion, he even tied a string around the neck of his infant sister.

More here.

Saturday Poem

Questions by the Lake

When, after two years you returned to Solentiname,
already a child of five, Juan,
I remember very well what you said to me:
“You’re the one who’s going to tell me all about God, right?”

And I who all the time
have come to know less about God.
A mystic, that is, a lover of God
called God NOTHING,

and another said: all that you say about God is false.
And if you were to have knowledge of God it was better
perhaps I didn’t talk to you of God.

But once,
I certainly spoke to you of God by the lake,
on the dock,
during a twilight all pink and silver:

“God is one who’s within all of us,
within you, within me, within everywhere.”
“And God is within that heron?” “Yes.” “And within the sardines?”
“Yes.” “And within those clouds?” “Yes.”

“And within that other heron?” “Yes.”
A tiny Adam naming all your small paradise.
“And God is within this dock?” “Yes.” “And within the waves?”
Why do children ask so many questions?

And I
why do I question why
like a child?
“And God is also within my dad and my mom?” “Yes, God is.”

And you told me:
“But God doesn’t get to the island of the bad ones, right?”

Read more »

Friday, August 23, 2019

Is Science Political?

Michael D. Gordin in the Boston Review:

The word “science” typically evokes epistemic ambitions to explore the fundamental laws of the natural world. This is the stuff of philosophical reflection and documentary specials—and it is unquestionably important. This ethereal vision of science appears starkly divorced from the messy fray of “politics,” however you might want to understand the term.

Yet consider two other central features of today’s science: it is elite, and it is expensive. By elite, I do not mean that only certain sorts of people—the “right sorts”—have the capacity to do science. What I mean is that you cannot just pick up and decide today that you are going to be a scientist. It requires years, even decades, of training in the methods and practices of inquiry; consulting a scientist means that you are obligated to turn to someone who has already undergone that process. You do science with the scientists you have, regardless of whether they are socially or politically agreeable to you.

The expense of science is related. Especially since the end of World War II, research in cutting-edge areas of science consumes vast resources: particle accelerators, satellites, genome sequencers, large-scale field surveys, and all the monies invested in the training of those elite scientists. Someone has to pay for that. In the United States, at first that “someone” was philanthropy (such as the Rockefeller Foundation) or industry (Bell Labs), but during the Cold War it was, increasingly, the state.

More here.

Two centuries before Einstein, Hume recognised that universal time, independent of an observer’s viewpoint, doesn’t exist

Matias Slavov in Aeon:

In 1915, Albert Einstein wrote a letter to the philosopher and physicist Moritz Schlick, who had recently composed an article on the theory of relativity. Einstein praised it: ‘From the philosophical perspective, nothing nearly as clear seems to have been written on the topic.’ Then he went on to express his intellectual debt to ‘Hume, whose Treatise of Human Nature I had studied avidly and with admiration shortly before discovering the theory of relativity. It is very possible that without these philosophical studies I would not have arrived at the solution.’

More than 30 years later, his opinion hadn’t changed, as he recounted in a letter to his friend, the engineer Michele Besso: ‘In so far as I can be aware, the immediate influence of D Hume on me was greater. I read him with Konrad Habicht and Solovine in Bern.’ We know that Einstein studied Hume’s Treatise (1738-40) in a reading circle with the mathematician Conrad Habicht and the philosophy student Maurice Solovine around 1902-03. This was in the process of devising the special theory of relativity, which Einstein eventually published in 1905. It is not clear, however, what it was in Hume’s philosophy that Einstein found useful to his physics. We should therefore take a closer look.

More here.

A journalist reflects on the difficulty of maintaining professional boundaries while covering the Syrian refugee crisis

Nour Malas in Guernica:

Women in loose robes dragged toddlers, babies propped upon their hips. Men carrying parents and grandparents on their shoulders stepped ahead, calling back for assurances as women collapsed in the heat. Flimsy plastic bags, crammed with clothes and other belongings, dangled off shoulders and wrists. In the midday glaze, as light shimmered off the desert like water droplets, the scene at the Syrian-Iraqi border seemed almost biblical. My Iraqi colleague Ali, who had already tasted the wrath of displacement from his own country, squatted in the shade of our car and cried.

I, too, had watched this scene many times already, in Syria and on its borders. Recently, at another crossing into Iraq, thousands of Syrians had trampled over a bridge that all but collapsed into a river, capturing the media’s waning attention of the then three-year-old refugee crisis. From Iraq, I went to Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey, aiming to report on the refugee crisis from every border of Syria that I could. I was determined to see every dimension of this war so that I could better understand it. But not just for my reporting. This was a deeply personal assignment for me, and yet one that never quite felt personal enough.

Syria: never the country I called home, but certainly my homeland. I would untangle the many shades of this identity at the very moment the country was coming undone.

More here.

Apollo 11: What It Takes to Boldly Go

Fifty years ago, as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin bounced on the moon’s surface below, Apollo 11 Command Module Pilot Michael Collins briefly disappeared behind the lunar disk, becoming the first person to experience space entirely alone. As we set our sights on the stars, space travelers will need to cope with ever longer stretches—months, years, and beyond—in the lonely environs of the cosmos. What will that take? What will that be like? How will it affect who we are? Join Michael Collins and fellow astronauts for a whirlwind journey boldly going where only a handful of humans have gone before.

PARTICIPANTS: Michael Collins, Leland Melvin, Scott Kelly, and Ariane Cornell

Sex, Flesh, God: Towards a Theology of Carnal Life

Wesley Hill at Marginalia Review:

To put it mildly, Christianity has a complicated relationship with flesh. The same Paul who declared the Lord’s ownership of the body also bequeathed to subsequent Christian history a disdain for physicality through his—misunderstood, as most interpreters now think, but no less influential for being so—sharp contrast between the life of the flesh and the new life bestowed by and in the Spirit of Jesus. Stark affirmations such as the one he wrote to the Corinthians—“flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God”—at minimum lent confidence to later Christian denigrators of the body who imagined salvation as an escape from fleshly imprisonment and, at maximum, convinced generations of Christians that following Jesus ought to entail hating the body.

So it should come as no surprise that one of our most brilliantly creative theologians currently writing in English has turned his attention to the topic of the flesh. That phrase “writing in English” is one I’m intentionally foregrounding, because Paul Griffiths in Christian Flesh tells us at the outset that that is his aim. “Most Catholic theologians,” he laments, “aren’t very good at theology and aren’t very good at English.”

more here.

Peter Fonda: Six Great Performances

David Parkinson at BFI:

For a brief moment, Peter Fonda was one of the most important people in American cinema. Not because he was the son of Hollywood stalwart Henry Fonda or the younger brother of activist actress Jane Fonda. But because he had made $60 million on a $384,000 road movie. Moreover, in producing, co-writing and starring in Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider(1969), Fonda had shattered the studio system’s shackles and made himself a countercultural icon in the process. His performance as Wyatt (aka Captain America) prompted the Village Voice to declare him “a combination of Clint Eastwood and James Dean”. Yet, somehow, to paraphrase his famous campfire line, he blew it.

Having impressed with his directorial debut, The Hired Hand (1971), Fonda drew less praise for Idaho Transfer (1973) and Wanda Nevada (1979), the only film in which he appeared with his famous father, whose distant strictness after the 10-year-old’s mother had committed suicide shaped an unhappy childhood that included a near fatal incident with an antique gun (mention of which during a 1965 LSD party prompted John Lennon to write ‘She Said She Said’).

more here.

What Is Literary Impressionism?

Sarah Cole at Public Books:

The eminent art historian Michael Fried has set out, in his own energetic and independent style, to answer this question—what was literary impressionism?—and to do so unencumbered by the general principles that have so far cohered around the term in the work of literary critics and art historians. This may bother some readers who expect a more direct engagement with the critical history of the term. Fried’s approach is to start the inquiry afresh, using detailed readings of passages in individual works to derive his own answer to his title’s question. “If my specific readings and my overall argument cumulatively gain traction on their own terms,” he writes, “I shall consider this book a success.”

Included in Fried’s analyses, in addition to books by the novelists listed above, are works by W. H. Hudson, Rudyard Kipling, Frank Norris, H. G. Wells, R. B. Cunninghame Graham, Jack London, Erskine Childers, and Edgar Rice Burroughs (author of the Tarzan books), among others. His list, made up both of well-studied writers and those almost never discussed by literary critics, is refreshing, cutting across categories of canonicity and style.

more here.

Address Unknown: the great, forgotten anti-Nazi book everyone must read

Jonathan Freedland in The Guardian:

It consists of nothing more than an intermittent correspondence between two friends. Yet the epistolary form is deceptively efficient, supplying backstory, plot, character, dialogue and more than one narrative voice before a conventional novel might have cleared its throat. Within a page or two, we are in the world of Martin and Max, both German, the latter a Jew now living in San Francisco, the former now back in Munich – two men who have been business partners, friends and whose families have, as we shall discover, been intimately connected.

Their exchange, spanning just 16 months between 1932 and 1934, illuminates not just the specific texture of the early Nazi period, but something more timeless. It serves as a guide to the way any politics of identity – especially one that invokes “the people”, rooting that idea in blood and soil – eventually, and often very rapidly, divides and polarises. Max and Martin have shared “the fireside”, there finding “warmth and understanding, where small selfishnesses are impossible and where wine and books and talk give a different meaning to existence”. But even the very best of friends can be rent apart. Once a dividing line is drawn, it’s astonishing how swiftly people can break from those who stand on the other side of it. In that sense, Address Unknown is a warning. We tell ourselves, as these characters do, that friendship is eternal, that some bonds will never be broken. This short story warns us that ideology, once it has turned to fever, is stronger than friendship.

More here.

CRISPR cuts turn gels into biological watchdogs

Ewen Callaway in Nature:

Is there anything CRISPR can’t do? Scientists have wielded the gene-editing tool to make scores of genetically modified organisms, as well as to track animal developmentdetect diseases and control pests. Now, they have found yet another application for it: using CRISPR to create smart materials that change their form on command. The shape-shifting materials could be used to deliver drugs, and to create sentinels for almost any biological signal, researchers report in Science on 22 August1. The study was led by James Collins, a bioengineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge.

Collins’ team worked with water-filled polymers that are held together by strands of DNA, known as DNA hydrogels. To alter the properties of these materials, Collins and his team turned to a form of CRISPR that uses a DNA-snipping enzyme called Cas12a. (The gene-editor CRISPR–Cas9 uses the Cas9 enzyme to snip a DNA sequence at the desired point.) The Cas12a enzyme can be programmed to recognize a specific DNA sequence. The enzyme cuts its target DNA strand, then severs single strands of DNA nearby. This property allowed the researchers to build a series of CRISPR-controlled hydrogels containing a target DNA sequence and single strands of DNA, which break up after Cas12a recognizes the target sequence in a stimulus. The break-up of the single DNA strands triggers the hydrogels to change shape or, in some cases, completely dissolve, releasing a payload (see ‘CRISPR-controlled gels’).

More here.

Friday Poem

Master Class, Tosca

—for Maria Callas
Her voice and life a “bare, ruined choir,”
so now, the act.  A young tenor asks,
“What advice do you have for me?”
He has a voice, knows the notes,
wants answers, but she does not answer.
Instead, she takes him,  beyond his clumsy,
boyish wish to be liked, to the church
where his song lives.  She puts a brush
in his hand, a canvas before him.
She makes him remember the way
Tosca’s body sang to him all the long
night before, the rousing chorus
of his own flesh .  And the music
comes – in his own body and throat.
Awed, silent, but then he asks again,
“What advice do you have for me?”

“Remember, remember the spring.”

by Nils Peterson
and here