June 16, 2018

Saifedean Ammous’s World cup preview and predictions

Saifedean Ammous in The Saif House:

After the success of my predictions for the 2010 and 2014  World Cup, I have decided to not quit while I’m ahead, and put my neck and footballing knowledge on the line and hand everyone in the internet the chance to mock me relentlessly if I get things wrong. Please note I’ve been extremely busy with my book and have not had time to review this properly or edit it, so it might have mistakes, but you are not paying me for it so please don’t waste even more time complaining and arguing with me. We’re both better off spending that time watching the games!

Egypt

Football is an industry built on delusion. I don’t mean to imply that is a bad thing. On the contrary, that is an essential part of the beauty of the game. Billions of boys all around the world, including your humble correspondent, grow up with the utterly delusional dream that one day they will lift the World Cup, leading a team of their countrymen against the best players of the world, fighting hard to get to the final, scoring the winning goal, and then lifting the trophy and spending the rest of their life basking in the glory and admiration of the entire planet.

More here.

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Researchers have predicted the outcome of the World Cup after simulating the entire soccer tournament 100,000 times

From the MIT Technology Review:

One way to gauge likely outcomes is to look at bookmakers’ odds. These companies use professional statisticians to analyze extensive databases of results in a way that quantifies the probability of different outcomes of any possible match. In this way, bookmakers can offer odds on all the games that will kick off in the next few weeks, as well as odds on potential winners.

An even better estimate comes from combining the odds from lots of different bookmakers. This approach suggests Brazil is the clear favorite to win the 2018 World Cup, with a probability of 16.6 percent, followed by Germany (12.8 percent) and Spain (12.5 percent).

But in recent years, researchers have developed machine-learning techniques that have the potential to outperform conventional statistical approaches. What do these new techniques predict as the likely outcome of the 2018 World Cup?

More here.

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‘The Immeasurable World’ by William Atkins

Gavin Francis at The Guardian:

Into the shifting sands of Oman he follows the stories of Wilfred ThesigerBertram Thomas and Harry St John Philby, mesmerised by a stillness in ceaseless motion: “The desert … leaves you dazed,” he writes, “and yet it quickly becomes apparent that, just as the desert is not silent, it is far from being still.” In Australia he visits the Maralinga nuclear test sites, superbly described as “a ruined place whose silence is less tranquillity’s than that of a battlefield where the killing has just ended”. The British director of nuclear testing, William Penney, saw in the undulating Australian desert “the appearance of English downland”. In Atkins’s imagination those outback dusts merge with the blood-red circles on cold war maps – the ones predicting the radii of nuclear devastation.

The chapters vary in their focus: Atkins mocks those travel writers who believe themselves to be explorers, and shudders with post-colonial embarrassment at the deeds of Aurel Stein and Sven Hedin.

more here.

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Breaking Up with James Joyce

Gabrielle Carey at The Sydney Review of Books:

‘Is Finnegans Wake really important?’ my student asked me a few years ago. He was from India, sent to Australia for his education at great expense by his parents. I felt sorry for him so I had invented some cash-in-hand filing work, much of which involved compiling notes, essays, articles, emails and letters in relation to Finnegans Wake. Now he was daring to ask whether the book I’d spent much of my adult life devoted to was really of any importance.

‘Yes!’ I snapped back immediately, appalled that he dared to doubt my enterprise. But then I realised I couldn’t really explain why. And perhaps that’s where my doubts began. More than doubts. Like so many before me, I have come to realise that there is a reason why Joyce’s nickname is Mr Difficulty.

more here.

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‘Lost Empress’ By Sergio De La Pava

Chad Post at The Quarterly Conversation:

One of the most ambitious, audacious books of recent memory, Lost Empress by Sergio de la Pava brings together a smorgasbord of plot lines and scenes ranging from the serious to the comic, including: a clash between the NFL and the Indoor Football League, the history of Joni Mitchell’s career, the heist of a lost Dalí, a court case involving a high-profile murder and an incredibly intelligent inmate, the Mandela Effect, the life of a 911 operator, the origins of a brain tumor, quantum mechanics and the mind-body divide as it relates to time and consciousness, an accidental impaling and the said consequences of such as relates to the nature of getting revenge, multiple love stories that go unfulfilled, and a fight between a pig mascot and a crab one.

Unsurprisingly, this book is over 600 pages long, which, at a time in which the books garnering the most praise tend to be short, dark, and scary, feels almost like an aesthetic zag where everyone else is zigging. This is also more or less the same way that you could characterize de la Pava’s entire literary career.

more here.

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Saturday Poem

Coquí

One tiny tree frog
with big eyes
sings happily,
“Kokee! Kokee!”
.
His brother comes to bother.
Coquí doesn’t push him.
Coquí doesn’t bite him.
Coquí tells him,
“Kokee-Kee! Kokee-Kee!”
.
Two tiny tree frogs
with big eyes
sing happily,
“Kokee! Kokee!”
.
by Carmen T. Bernier Grand,
from Book Links
Poetry Magazine
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The Search for Cancer Treatment Beyond Mutant-Hunting

Siddhartha Mukherjee in The New York Times:

On my way to a meeting on cancer and personalized medicine a few weeks ago, I found myself thinking, improbably, of the Saul Steinberg New Yorker cover illustration “View From Ninth Avenue.” Steinberg’s drawing (yes, you’ve seen it — in undergraduate dorm rooms, in subway ads) depicts a mental map of the world viewed through the eyes of a typical New Yorker. We’re somewhere on Ninth Avenue, looking out toward the water. Tenth Avenue looms large, thrumming with pedestrians and traffic. The Hudson is a band of gray-blue. But the rest of the world is gone — irrelevant, inconsequential, specks of sesame falling off a bagel. Kansas City, Chicago, Las Vegas and Los Angeles are blips on the horizon. There’s a strip of water denoting the Pacific Ocean, and faraway blobs of rising land: Japan, China, Russia. The whole thing is a wry joke on self-obsession and navel gazing: A New Yorker’s world begins and ends in New York.

In the mid-2000s, it felt to me, at times, as if cancer medicine were viewing the world from its own Ninth Avenue. Our collective vision was dominated by genomics — by the newfound capacity to sequence the genomes of cells (a “genome” refers to the complete set of genetic material present in an organism or a cell). Cancer, of course, is typically a disease caused by mutant genes that drive abnormal cellular growth (other features of cellular physiology, like the cell’s metabolism and survival, are also affected). By identifying the mutant genes in cancer cells, the logic ran, we would devise new ways of killing the cells. And because the exact set of mutations was unique to an individual patient — one woman’s breast cancer might have mutations in 12 genes, while another breast cancer might have mutations in a different set of 16 — we would “personalize” cancer medicine to that patient, thereby vastly increasing the effectiveness of therapy.

This kind of thinking had an exhilarating track record. In the 2000s, a medicine called Herceptin was shown to be effective for women with breast cancer, but only if the cancer cells carried a genetic aberration in a gene called HER-2. Another drug, Gleevec, worked only if the tumor cells had a mutant gene called BCR-ABL, or a mutation in a gene called c-kit. In many of our genome-obsessed minds, the problem of cancer had become reduced to a rather simple, scalable algorithm: find the mutations in a patient, and match those mutations with a medicine. All the other variables — the cellular environment within which the cancer cell was inescapably lodged, the metabolic and hormonal milieu that surrounded the cancer or, for that matter, the human body that was wrapped around it — might as well have been irrelevant blobs receding in the distance: Japan, China, Russia.

More here.
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June 15, 2018

State of Affairs: John Updike’s “Couples”

Christine Smallwood in Bookforum:

By the time Couples came out, John Updike had already published four novels, three story collections, two poetry collections, and a volume of assorted prose. He had been called, by the New York Times Book Review, “the most significant young novelist in America,” and had been sent by the State Department on a tour of the Communist bloc. And yet there was a growing sense that he had not made a major statement on the issues of the day. He could describe a barn well enough, but to what end? The man whose name will be forever asterisked with the insult David Foster Wallace made famous—“just a penis with a thesaurus”—was thought to be clever but a little small, too decorative, and overly fond of childhood reminiscence. Norman Podhoretz complained that Updike “has very little to say.” John Aldridge put him in “the second or just possibly the third rank of serious American novelists.” Elizabeth Hardwick admired Rabbit, Run, but thought there was “something insignificant, or understated, or too dimly felt in the heart of Rabbit himself.” As for his sexual frankness, Updike, like his contemporaries, had “not decided or discovered in what way this frankness will change the work itself. It cannot be merely interlarded like suet in the roast.”

With Couples, Updike served up a whole plate of suet. (Do you understand the genius of Hardwick’s metaphor? Suet is the hard white fat on the loins of beef or mutton.) He worked out the plot in church, jotting down notes on the weekly program—maybe that’s why the book has the air of being so scandalized by itself.

More here.

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The Next Plague Is Coming. Is America Ready?

Ed Yong in The Atlantic:

The Congo is one of the most biodiverse countries in the world. It was here that HIV bubbled into a pandemic, eventually detected half a world away, in California. It was here that monkeypox was first documented in people. The country has seen outbreaks of Marburg virus, Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever, chikungunya virus, yellow fever. These are all zoonotic diseases, which originate in animals and spill over into humans. Wherever people push into wildlife-rich habitats, the potential for such spillover is high. Sub-Saharan Africa’s population will more than double during the next three decades, and urban centers will extend farther into wilderness, bringing large groups of immunologically naive people into contact with the pathogens that skulk in animal reservoirs—Lassa fever from rats, monkeypox from primates and rodents, Ebola from God-knows-what in who-knows-where.

On average, in one corner of the world or another, a new infectious disease has emerged every year for the past 30 years: mers, Nipah, Hendra, and many more. Researchers estimate that birds and mammals harbor anywhere from 631,000 to 827,000 unknown viruses that could potentially leap into humans. Valiant efforts are under way to identify them all, and scan for them in places like poultry farms and bushmeat markets, where animals and people are most likely to encounter each other. Still, we likely won’t ever be able to predict which will spill over next; even long-known viruses like Zika, which was discovered in 1947, can suddenly develop into unforeseen epidemics.

More here.

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It Can Happen Here

Cass R. Sunstein in the New York Review of Books:

Liberal democracy has enjoyed much better days. Vladimir Putin has entrenched authoritarian rule and is firmly in charge of a resurgent Russia. In global influence, China may have surpassed the United States, and Chinese president Xi Jinping is now empowered to remain in office indefinitely. In light of recent turns toward authoritarianism in Turkey, Poland, Hungary, and the Philippines, there is widespread talk of a “democratic recession.” In the United States, President Donald Trump may not be sufficiently committed to constitutional principles of democratic government.

In such a time, we might be tempted to try to learn something from earlier turns toward authoritarianism, particularly the triumphant rise of the Nazis in Germany in the 1930s. The problem is that Nazism was so horrifying and so barbaric that for many people in nations where authoritarianism is now achieving a foothold, it is hard to see parallels between Hitler’s regime and their own governments. Many accounts of the Nazi period depict a barely imaginable series of events, a nation gone mad. That makes it easy to take comfort in the thought that it can’t happen again.

But some depictions of Hitler’s rise are more intimate and personal. They focus less on well-known leaders, significant events, state propaganda, murders, and war, and more on the details of individual lives. They help explain how people can not only participate in dreadful things but also stand by quietly and live fairly ordinary days in the midst of them. They offer lessons for people who now live with genuine horrors, and also for those to whom horrors may never come but who live in nations where democratic practices and norms are under severe pressure.

More here.

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There’s no such thing as fake news (and that’s bad news)

Robert B. Talisse in 3:AM Magazine:

It seems everyone these days laments the polarized condition of democratic politics.  It is widely agreed that fake news is a central cause of the degradation of our political culture.  That there is accord on this point is noteworthy.  Perhaps the consensus on fake news offers a swath of common ground amidst all of the divisiveness?  Maybe our shared condemnation of fake news provides a basis for a broader plan for rehabilitating democracy?

Such optimism might be premature.  The unanimity over fake news possibly owes more to the semantics of the word fake than to a convergence of political values.  Note that to call something fake is, at the very least, to mark it as suspect; it is to say that it is posing as something it’s not.  So, yes, everyone denounces fake news.  We oppose that which professes to be news, but isn’t.  But we do not thereby agree about which institutions and reports are authentic.  Unless there is a shared view of what fake news is, the consensus about its dangers is likely merely verbal, thus providing no basis for a rehabilitation plan.

There is as yet no canonical definition of fake news. Still, there might be reason to hope.  Perhaps we share a conception of fake news that is inchoate, waiting for an explicit definition.  Given this possibility, we should attempt to devise a definition.

More here.

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The Stanford Prison Experiment was massively influential, and we just learned it was a fraud

Brian Resnick in Vox:

The Stanford Prison Experiment, one of the most famous and compelling psychological studies of all time, told us a tantalizingly simple story about human nature.

The study took paid participants and assigned them to be “inmates” or “guards” in a mock prison at Stanford University. Soon after the experiment began, the “guards” began mistreating the “prisoners,” implying evil is brought out by circumstance. The authors, in their conclusions, suggested innocent people, thrown into a situation where they have power over others, will begin to abuse that power. And people who are put into a situation where they are powerless will be driven to submission, even madness.

The Stanford Prison Experiment has been included in many, many introductory psychology textbooks and is often cited uncritically. It’s the subject of movies, documentaries, books, television shows, and congressional testimony.

But its findings were wrong. Very wrong. And not just due to its questionable ethics or lack of concrete data — but because of deceit.

More here.

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Rapping, Deconstructed: How Some of the Greatest Rappers Make Their Rhymes

From Open Culture:

If high school English teachers can challenge skeptical students to cultivate an appreciation for Shakespeare and poetry with rap-based assignments, might the reverse also hold true?

Many aficionados of high culture turn up their noses at rap, believing it to be a simple form, requiring more braggadocio than talent.

Estelle Caswell, rap fan and producer of Vox’s Earworm series, may get them to rethink that position with the above video, showcasing how great rappers assemble rhymes.

Caswell uses visual graphing to explain the progress from the A-A-B-B scheme of early rapper Kurtis Blow’s “The Breaks” (1980) to the complex and surprising holorimes of her personal favorite, MF DOOM.

To appreciate her visual breakdowns, you must understand that raps can be scored like traditional music.

More here.  [Thanks to Sean Carroll.]

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