Saturday Poem

When I Meet the Last Taushiro

I ask him why his folk settled at the mouth of the Aucayacu River
instead of plodding north. He tells me they meant to live.
The conference begins & a man hands him a card. Several follow.
The day before, he’d gathered rainwater & buttered up some yucca
as he headed toward the mount. He prowled until nighttime, he believes.
I ask him why he won’t satanize those who snub his fears & wants.
The last speaker of a language that forgoes p’s & b’s longs to teach us
his a’s & c’s. Last year, he met a woman who could muster a few sentences,
but not nearly enough for it to matter. He used to have a Bible in Taushiro
that “got stolen ages ago,” he says. I ask him who translated it.
He doesn’t need it anymore. He sings. He talks to himself & never forgets.
As a young man, he could climb a tree the way his mother taught him.
Nobody else for miles knew how to get those paltas from up there.
Yet he never fell. Ask anyone around. He could do it again, he thinks,
but only for a little while. It’s getting late & he’ll run out of game.
.
by P.L. Sanchez
from Rattle #62, Winter 2018

The Last Taushiro

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March 22, 2019

Signs and Wonders

Delia Falconer in the Sydney Review of Books:

In ancient Rome, priests and officials called augurs would look for omens of the future in the weather, the movement of animals (especially animals encountered out of place), or the flights of birds. These days, we’re scrutinising the same things to tell the future, not as signs of the gods’ will but our own actions.

Were the gale-force winds last November simply unseasonal, I heard people asking in the playground, or evidence of global warming? Where are the summer cicadas, my mother asks — she can’t remember hearing any on Sydney’s north shore for years—and why have brush turkeys and rabbits started appearing in her garden?

Scientists are pursuing these questions with more rigour: modern augurs, staring at birds’ intestines, they are trying read both the accumulated past and the future.

More here.

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This essay explains how quantum computers work

Andy Matuschak and Michael Nielsen in Quantum Country:

It’s not a survey essay, or a popularization based on hand-wavy analogies. We’re going to dig down deep so you understand the details of quantum computing. Along the way, we’ll also learn the basic principles of quantum mechanics, since those are required to understand quantum computation.

Learning this material is challenging. Quantum computing and quantum mechanics are famously “hard” subjects, often presented as mysterious and forbidding. If this were a conventional essay, chances are that you’d rapidly forget the material. But the essay is also an experiment in the essay form. As I’ll explain in detail below the essay incorporates new user interface ideas to help you remember what you read. That may sound surprising, but uses a well-validated idea from cognitive science known as spaced-repetition testing. More detail on how it works below. The upshot is that anyone who is curious and determined can understand quantum computing deeply and for the long term.

More here.

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White Supremacism Isn’t Insanity

Shadi Hamid in Foreign Policy:

It is reasonable that we would want to cast such an attack outside the realm of rationality, to tell ourselves that expressions of evil are random and unpredictable; it’s the same impulse many had when faced with the brutality and terror of the Islamic State and other jihadi extremists. To rationalize evil as something irrational makes it easier to take on horrifying news. But to do that here would be a mistake.

I won’t link to the accused shooter’s manifesto. But I think it’s important for analysts and government officials to read it carefully. This is what many of us did when the Islamic State would release its recordings and statements. We tried to understand why young Tunisians would travel to Syria to fight in disproportionate numbers for a group that seemed so ostentatious in its savagery. In the process, the analytical and policy community was able to reach a fairly sophisticated understanding of not just the group’s objectives but also of its particular way of looking at the world, including the end times. In dealing with an apparent global rise in violent white supremacism, we may, once again, be obliged to immerse ourselves in a disturbing, sometimes terrifying universe of thought that will, at least at first, seem foreign.

More here.

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A Last Conversation with Carolee

Alison Knowles with Carolee Schneemann:

Schneemann: We would go mushroom hunting with him. And Higgins made these incredible mushroom dinners, right? They made you poop like crazy, but they were delicious. And John was very close with Tenney. Tenney produced Cage’s concerts early on, while nobody was supporting us or helping us. He was forming a group called Tone Roads at the time with Malcolm Goldstein and Philip Corner, and Phil Glass and Steve Reich were participants. I always cherished time with Jim and John talking about sound and natural formulations, but we were divisive on politics. John didn’t want to have conflict, it was his defining position. He didn’t discourage us from going to anti-Vietnam war marches, but he wouldn’t join in any way. We loved him. He was generous, spirited, engaging.

What about George Maciunas? He hated me! He said I was narcissistic, overly sensuous, operatic, involved in self-display—everything that was against his principles for Fluxus. And he sent out a broad sheet at some point instructing true Fluxus artists to having nothing to do with me whatsoever, but we had layers of friendship and association.

more here.

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Agustín Fernández Mallo’s Contemporary Epic

Jessica Loudis at The Nation:

One of the paradoxes of Nocilla Dream is that it is an apolitical book that owes its success in part to politics. Mallo was born in 1967, only eight years before Francisco Franco’s dictatorship gave way to Spain’s nascent democracy. He came of age in the midst of La Movida, the Madrid-based countercultural movement that released decades of pent-up desire for sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Through music, art, and, most notably, the early films of Pedro Almodóvar, La Movida introduced young Spaniards to a world beyond their own borders. At its height, Mallo was living in Madrid as a full-fledged punk in the first year of a physics degree, skipping parties to stay in and write. It was a heady time for artists, and in his insightful introductory essay, Bunstead draws a parallel between “the trilogy’s fractured chaos and its huge, almost yearning emphasis on order” and “the wider Spanish experience of this period,” which saw the country struggling to define itself in the absence of Franco.

more here.

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Free Trade in Medieval England

Paul Strohm at Lapham’s Quarterly:

Giano’s killing was one episode in the larger story of international trade and its accompanying rivalries in the later European Middle Ages. The so-called Dark Ages were never as dark as their name would imply; hucksters, peddlers, chapmen, and other minor players had always plied Europe’s roads and dealt their goods. But it was in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries that high-volume international trading seriously resumed, with trade in wool one of its major drivers. In those centuries, the Port of London alone handled almost a thousand arriving and departing trading vessels a year, and numerous other English ports (including the newly active ports of Dover and Southampton) were claiming a role. Half this activity was devoted to wool, and it generated immense wealth for the realm, conferring fortunes on a small and monopolistic group of men. These successful profiteers were not the sheepherders and shearers of the provinces, nor the merchant sailors who braved the seas, but the entrepreneurial middlemen who collected revenues on exported wool. A close-knit group of at most several hundred men, they formed allegiances and confederations throughout the mercantile establishment that dominated the leading guilds and ran the city of London.

more here.

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Arabs: A 3,000-Year History

Ian Black in The Guardian:

Outside the window of Tim Mackintosh-Smith’s home in Sana’a, the Yemeni capital, are reminders of the long sweep of Arab history – child soldiers mourning martyrs of the country’s ongoing war, rocket salvoes, sectarian rivalries, hypnotic slogans and a mosque dating back to the seventh century and the rise of Islam in the Arabian peninsula. The view is simultaneously rich, bleak and thought-provoking: for three millennia, dynasties have come and gone, from the Sabaeans and Himyaris to the Umayyads of Damascus and the Abbasids of Baghdad. Later came the al Saud – the family that gave its name to a still powerful kingdom. Interactions between desert (badu) and town (hadar), semi-nomadic tribes and settled peoples, strong men and weak institutions, are a constant theme. Language, faith, and loyalty come together in complex and far-flung combinations.

Arabs retells a familiar story in unexpected ways. It focuses first on the social and economic changes (the domestication of the camel was key) that shaped the pre-Islamic world before the transformation that began in Mecca in AD622. Perfumes and gems were the precursors of the petroleum and gas of modern times. In the background were always challenges from Assyrians, Persians, Romans and Mongols, narrated and fought by a colourful cast of oracles, orators and commanders of dogged, lightly equipped horse-mounted warriors. Mackintosh-Smith is an unusual Englishman abroad: a writer who lives, as he puts it, in a land not a library, experiencing history in situ. He combines deep learning with penetrating insights delivered with dazzling turns of phrase and illuminating comparisons.

More here.

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Protein-slaying drugs could be the next blockbuster therapies

Megan Scudellari in Nature:

When Craig Crews first managed to make proteins disappear on command with a bizarre new compound, the biochemist says that he considered it a “parlour trick”, a “cute chemical curiosity”. Today, that cute trick is driving billions of US dollars in investment from pharmaceutical companies such as Roche, Pfizer, Merck, Novartis and GlaxoSmithKline. “I think you can infer that pretty much every company has programmes in this area,” says Raymond Deshaies, senior vice-president of global research at Amgen in Thousand Oaks, California, and one of Crews’s early collaborators. The drug strategy, called targeted protein degradation, capitalizes on the cell’s natural system for clearing unwanted or damaged proteins. These protein degraders take many forms, but the type that is heading for clinical trials this year is one that Crews, based at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, has spent more than 20 years developing: proteolysis-targeting chimaeras, or PROTACs.

Large and unwieldy, PROTACs defy conventional wisdom on what a drug should be. But they also raise the possibility of tackling some of the most indomitable diseases around. Because they destroy rather than inhibit proteins, and can bind to them where other drugs can’t, protein degraders could conceivably be used to go after targets that drug developers have long considered ‘undruggable’: cancer-fuelling villains such as the protein MYC, or the tau protein that tangles up in Alzheimer’s disease.

More here.

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Friday Poem

The Condition of Water

Turning back toward home
on my after-breakfast walk

I face the steep hill of eucalyptus

that stands over our neighborhood
and am struck by the beauty

of what can hardly be seen

for today after heavy rain
the highest levels are obscured

like the truth of the Tao Te Ching

by the low-lying duvet of cloud
the farthest trees barely visible

looking remote as if ranged

on some twelfth-century Chinese scroll
Tell me! What is it in our

bicameral brain that makes

obfuscation of mere fact
so much more beautiful?
.

byPeter Dale Scott
from Rattle #62, Winter 2018

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March 21, 2019

Economics After Neoliberalism

Suresh Naidu, Dani Rodrik, and Gabriel Zucman in the Boston Review:

The tools of economics are critical to developing a policy framework for what we call “inclusive prosperity.” While prosperity is the traditional concern of economists, the “inclusive” modifier demands both that we consider the whole distribution of outcomes, not simply the average (the “middle class”), and that we consider human prosperity broadly, including non-pecuniary sources of well-being, from health to climate change to political rights.

To improve the quality of public discussion around inclusive prosperity, we have organized a group of economists—the Economics for Inclusive Prosperity(EfIP) network—to make policy recommendations across a wide range of topics, including labor markets, public finance, international trade, and finance. The purpose of this nascent collective effort is not simply to offer a list of prescriptions for different domains of policy, but to provide an overall vision for economic policy that stands as a genuine alternative to the market fundamentalism that is often—and wrongly—identified with economics.

More here.

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Bill Gates: Why I’m into meditation

Bill Gates in Gates Notes:

I stopped listening to music and watching TV in my 20s. It sounds extreme, but I did it because I thought they would just distract me from thinking about software. That blackout period lasted only about five years, and these days I’m a huge fan of TV shows like Narcos and listen to a lot of U2, Willie Nelson, and the Beatles.

Back when I was avoiding music and TV in the hope of maintaining my focus, I knew that lots of other people were using meditation to achieve similar ends. But I wasn’t interested. I thought of meditation as a woo-woo thing tied somehow to reincarnation, and I didn’t buy into it.

Lately, though, I’ve gained a much better understanding of meditation. I’m certainly not an expert, but I now meditate two or three times a week, for about 10 minutes each time. Melinda meditates too. Sometimes we sit to meditate together. (We use comfortable chairs; there’s no way I could do the lotus position.)

I now see that meditation is simply exercise for the mind, similar to the way we exercise our muscles when we play sports.

More here.

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UAE: The ‘happiest’ little police state ever?

Belen Fernandez in Middle East Eye:

In February, Time Out Dubai ecstatically reported that the United Arab Emirates was “one of the happiest countries in the world”, according to a new study by the Boston Consulting Group.

The article’s author, Scott Campbell, gushed that the “transformation to happiness” had been “guided by the vision of His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum”, who is not only the ruler of the emirate of Dubai but also the vice president and prime minister of the UAE.

Transformative steps have included “adopting a globally unique, science-based programme to analyse happiness levels” and “asking people to rate public services with emoji-style reviews”.

Obviously, nothing says genuine human contentment – in an artificial land characterised by soul-crushing materialism and malls with ski slopes – like a digital yellow smiley face.

More here.

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Rebecca Newberger Goldstein: Why I Left Orthodox Judaism

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The Current State of Global Faith

Rupert Shortt at the TLS:

Despite the spread of secularism in the West, rising levels of religious belief in the world as a whole have become incontrovertible. Three-quarters of humanity profess a faith; the figure is projected to reach 80 per cent by 2050 – not just because believers tend to have more children, but also through the spread of democracy. Significant, too, is the growing prominence of post-secular thinking in several disciplines. Things looked very different as recently as the 1980s. Influential commentators assumed that mainstream religion would fade away within a few generations; anglophone theologians, to name only one group, were often intellectually insecure. The turning of the tide is a significant chapter in the history of ideas meriting a full-length study of its own. Its main conclusions are worth outlining. The scales of debate on whether religion does more harm than good will tilt a bit if the theistic picture looks more coherent on closer inspection than many had previously thought, and naturalism – the thesis that everything is ultimately explicable in the language of natural science – less plausible as a consequence.

more here.

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Bach’s Birthday, Bruno Maderna

Sudip Bose at The American Scholar:

No composer exerted a greater influence on the music that came after him than Johann Sebastian Bach, who was born on this date in 1685. As we celebrate his birthday, let us consider one distinctive way in which composers have paid homage to the master: by using Bach’s name itself as a musical motif. In German nomenclature, the note (and key of) B flat is represented by the letter B; B natural is represented by the letter H. A and C are just as they are, so to spell out Bach’s surname in musical form yields a four-note motif consisting of B flat, A, C, and B. Bach himself used the motif (a kind of autograph stamp, sometimes surreptitious, sometimes not), and many others followed his lead: Robert Schumann, Franz Liszt, Max Reger, Arnold Schoenberg, Francis Poulenc, Anton Webern, Arvo Pärt, Krzysztof Penderecki, and Alfred Schnittke among them. One of the most imaginative uses of the motif came from a composer who is too often overlooked by music critics but who happened to be one of the most innovative and arresting voices in 20th-century music, Bruno Maderna.

more here.

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Okwui Enwezor (1963 – 2019)

Adam Shatz at the LRB:

Okwui’s art world looked more like the world itself. But this was no occasion for self-congratulation, much less for exercises in the sterile American rhetoric of ‘inclusion’, which he disdained. His project was to decolonise the art world: not to make it more ‘diverse’ but to redistribute power inside it.

Art, he believed, like other human activities, took place in a field of argument and struggle over limited resources. He did not shy away from conflict, or from jousting with other curators, such as Robert Storr, with whom he engaged in furious argument over contemporary African art in the pages of Artforum. At the Venice Biennale, he staged a marathon reading of Marx’s Capital. For Okwui, decolonising the art world meant more than having more shows for artists from the Global South: it meant reappraising the entire history of Western modernism from a non-Western perspective. His last published essay was on Andy Warhol’s ‘disaster’ series, including his images of the 1963 civil rights demonstrations in Birmingham, written for the Warhol retrospective at the Whitney.

more here.

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Thursday Poem

Ways In, Ways Out

Hemingway’s looking down the
twin-barrel of the shotgun
into a blue metallic void.

Hart Crane has one foot on deck,
the other over the rail,
his eye on the ship’s boiling wake below.

Sylvia Plath’s on her knees in the kitchen
with her head in the oven,
wondering if she paid the gas bill or not.

Richard Brautigan’s up in Bolinas
with a Saturday-night-special
nudged snugly in his graying temple.

Paul Celan looks down and sees
one last despondent metaphor
in the swirling waters of the Seine.

Lew Welch loads his 30-30 rifle,
heads up into the California hills,
unsure about when he’ll be coming back.

The ways in merge with the ways out,
life’s complexity compounds daily,
and no one’s getting any writing done today.

by Mark Terril
from Rattle #16, Winter 2001

Listen

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How to Improve Political Forecasts

Aubrey Clayton in Nautilus:

Every election we complain about horse-race coverage and every election we stay glued to it all the same. The problem with this kind of coverage is not that it’s unimportant. Who’s leading a particular race and by how much can matter a great deal to someone trying to decide which candidate to volunteer time or money to, or even whether it’s worth learning the policy positions of a fringe candidate with no chance of winning. The problem is the well-documented incentive for the media to make every race seem closer than it is, what Erika Fry in the Columbia Journalism Review called “rooting for the race.”

Those who simply want to know how the candidates stack up and who seek a more objective, quantitatively rigorous alternative to punditry have in recent years turned to such data journalism sources as Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight. But even they are feeling burned by 2016. Silver, who scored on both Obama victories, had Trump as a distant longshot in the primary and Clinton as a 71 percent favorite to make the winner’s circle in the general. Data-centered political coverage, as a whole, took a serious blow. Silver issued a partial mea culpa for the primary forecasts. But he has steadfastly defended the general election forecast with the arguments that (1) his model had given Trump better chances than nearly anyone else had, and (2) something having a 29 percent chance of happening doesn’t mean it’s impossible. Maybe the underdog got lucky. The latter defense, though, revealed a destabilizing truth about the nature of such forecasts that took many readers by surprise: Since all the forecasts are probabilistic, meaning they’re not strictly wrong in the event of an upset victory, then in what sense had they ever been right?

More here.

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