transcendentalist painting

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Fifty years before van Gogh began doing his night paintings, Ralph Waldo Emerson observed in the opening chapter of Nature: “If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore; and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God which has been shown!”

The brilliance of the MoMA exhibit, which has been organized with the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam (where it will go after it closes in New York on January 5), is that it captures what Emerson regarded as the miraculous, letting us see how van Gogh’s painting technique evolved over the course of the 1880s.

Van Gogh’s fascination with the night began with his “Twilight, Old Farmhouses in Loosduinen” (1883) and “Lane of Poplars at Sunset,” painted a few months later in 1884. The flat brushwork in these paintings is unremarkable, but the orange sun nearing the horizon in “Lane of Poplars at Sunset” hints at the change about to come in van Gogh’s work. A year later in “The Potato Eaters,” the direction in which van Gogh was headed becomes evident and so, too, does the fact that he was in the process of changing the sentimental approach to rural life that was so central to such French paintings as Jean-Francois Millet’s “The Sower” and Jules Breton’s “The Feast of St. John.”

more from Dissent here.

SLAVOJ ŽIŽEK WELCOMES you to the gym

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In 1981, singer, actress Olivia Newton-John is performing in a musical video for her song “Physical.” Olivia Newton-John is in the gym, not sweating, wearing headband and leotard, doing aerobics. Why is she not sweating? To answer this question, we need to reverse it and ask: Why are we not wearing a headband and leotard? And why are we sweating?

Then, I think, the meaning is clear. We are sitting in front of the TV, being couch potato, watching the illusion of nudity—which is the leotard—and the symbolism of discipline: the headband. She is doing all the work for us. She is getting physical.

With that in our minds, today we are going to do an upper-body workout with weights and the machines. OK!

more from McSweeney’s here.

Attentional Landscapes

Odette England in lensculture:

England_7 The Ishihara Color Test is the most common clinical test for red-green color vision deficiencies in humans. It comprises 38 plates, each containing a circle of dots randomized in color and size, which form a number that is visible to people with normal color vision. However, the number in the dots is invisible, or difficult to see, for those with a red-green color vision defect. But, like mirages and memories, the Ishihara numbers are just optical phenomena. Each shows an image of things elsewhere, where refraction and reflection coexist and, to some extent, can be captured on camera.

My project, Attentional Landscapes, undertakes quasi-scientific experiments by photographically stripping and manipulating intended meaning and function.

More here.

The Mourner’s Hope: Grief and the foundations of justice

Martha Nussbaum in The Boston Review:

On August 16, 2008, Martha Nussbaum—University of Chicago professor and Boston Review contributing editor—became a bat mitzvah. Part of the ceremony is the d’var Torah: a talk by the bat mitzvah on a section of the Torah portion (parashah) and the haftarah (pl. haftarot, a biblical reading accompanying a thematically related Torah portion). Nussbaum’s talk is reproduced here.

Martha When we are babies, we are very needy and we experience a great deal of pain. We long to be held and comforted. We long for a world in which every pain is nullified, every separation suspended by an embrace. That means that we want to be the center of the universe. Because, after all, the only way we would ever get immediate relief of every pain would be to turn others into our slaves. At first, our only awareness of others is as dimly seen forces that minister to our needs. When they do so, they can be sort of loved. (I say “sort of,” because it is not really love when an infant welcomes the breast or runs to be comforted.) When they do not minister to our needs, when they obstinately go their own separate way and fail to meet some imperative of nurture or holding, we feel rage. We want people to be the way we need them to be. Freud called the infant “His Majesty the Baby” for good reason: babies, like kings, do not understand that other people are real; they just want to rule them. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, commenting on the tendency of small children to make slaves of their parents, saw here a major threat to the very idea of a social order based on justice and political equality.

The personal call for comfort, in its infantile form, is sheer narcissism. Unreformed, it will surely defeat any thought of justice, since it does not even involve the understanding that other people are real.

More here.

Slavoj Žižek on Obama’s Victory and the Financial Meltdown

From the London Review of Books:

Screenhunter_05_nov_16_1047Noam Chomsky called for people to vote for Obama ‘without illusions’. I fully share Chomsky’s doubts about the real consequences of Obama’s victory: from a pragmatic perspective, it is quite possible that Obama will make only some minor improvements, turning out to be ‘Bush with a human face’. He will pursue the same basic policies in a more attractive way and thus effectively strengthen the US hegemony, damaged by the catastrophe of the Bush years.

There is nonetheless something deeply wrong with this reaction – a key dimension is missing from it. Obama’s victory is not just another shift in the eternal parliamentary struggle for a majority, with all the pragmatic calculations and manipulations that involves. It is a sign of something more. This is why an American friend of mine, a hardened leftist with no illusions, cried when the news came of Obama’s victory. Whatever our doubts, for that moment each of us was free and participating in the universal freedom of humanity.

In The Contest of Faculties, Kant asked a simple but difficult question: is there true progress in history? (He meant ethical progress, not just material development.) He concluded that progress cannot be proven, but we can discern signs which indicate that progress is possible.

More here.

The sequencing of a mathematical genome

Mathematicians develop computer proof-checking systems in order to realize century-old dreams of fully precise, accurate mathematics.

Julie Rehmeyer in Science News:

MathThe one source of truth is mathematics. Every statement is a pure logical deduction from foundational axioms, resulting in absolute certainty. Since Andrew Wiles proved Fermat’s Last Theorem, you’d be safe betting your life on it.

Well … in theory. The reality, though, is that mathematicians make mistakes. And as mathematics has advanced, some proofs have gotten immensely long and complex, often drawing on expertise from far-flung areas of math. Errors can easily creep in. Furthermore, some proofs now rely on computer code, and it’s hard to be certain that no bug lurks within, messing up the result.

Bet your life on Wiles’ proof of Fermat? Many mathematicians might decline.

Still, the notion that mathematical statements can be deduced from axioms isn’t hooey. It’s just that mathematicians don’t spell out every little step. There’s a reason for that: When Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whitehead tried to do so for just the most elementary parts of mathematics, they produced a 2,500-page tome. The result was so difficult to understand that Russell admitted to a friend, “I imagine no human being will ever read through it.”

Where humans falter, computers can sometimes prevail. A group of mathematicians and computer scientists believe that with new proof-validation programs, the dream of a fully spelled-out, rigorous mathematics, with every deduction explicit and correct, can be realized.

More here.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

How to Run a Con

“The key to a con is not that you trust the conman, but that he shows he trusts you. Conmen ply their trade by appearing fragile or needing help, by seeming vulnerable.”

Paul J. Zak in Psychology Today Blogs:

Conman_warningWhen I was in high school, I took a job at an ARCO gas station on the outskirts of Santa Barbara, California. At the time, I drove a 1967 Mustang hotrod and thought I might pick up some tips and cheap parts by working around cars after school. You see a lot of interesting things working the night shift in a sketchy neighborhood. I constantly saw people making bad decisions: drunk drivers, gang members, unhappy cops, and con men. In fact, I was the victim of a classic con called “The Pigeon Drop.” If we humans have such big brains, how can we get conned?

Here’s what happened to me. One slow Sunday afternoon, a man comes out of the restroom with a pearl necklace in his hand. “Found it on the bathroom floor” he says. He followed with “Geez, looks nice-I wonder who lost it?” Just then, the gas station’s phone rings and a man asked if anyone found a pearl necklace that he had purchased as a gift for his wife. He offers a $200 reward for the necklace’s return. I tell him that a customer found it. “OK” he says, “I’ll be there in 30 minutes.” I give him the ARCO address and he gives me his phone number. The man who found the necklace hears all this but tells me he is running late for a job interview and cannot wait for the other man to arrive.

Huum, what to do? The man with the necklace said “Why don’t I give you the necklace and we split the reward?” The greed-o-meter goes off in my head, suppressing all rational thought. “Yeah, you give me the necklace to hold and I’ll give you $100” I suggest. He agrees. Since high school kids working at gas stations don’t have $100, I take money out of the cash drawer to complete the transaction.

You can guess the rest.

More here.

niall ferguson and the death of planet finance

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This year we have lived through something more than a financial crisis. We have witnessed the death of a planet. Call it Planet Finance. Two years ago, in 2006, the measured economic output of the entire world was worth around $48.6 trillion. The total market capitalization of the world’s stock markets was $50.6 trillion, 4 percent larger. The total value of domestic and international bonds was $67.9 trillion, 40 percent larger. Planet Finance was beginning to dwarf Planet Earth.

Planet Finance seemed to spin faster, too. Every day $3.1 trillion changed hands on foreign-exchange markets. Every month $5.8 trillion changed hands on global stock markets. And all the time new financial life-forms were evolving. The total annual issuance of mortgage-backed securities, including fancy new “collateralized debt obligations” (C.D.O.’s), rose to more than $1 trillion. The volume of “derivatives”—contracts such as options and swaps—grew even faster, so that by the end of 2006 their notional value was just over $400 trillion. Before the 1980s, such things were virtually unknown. In the space of a few years their populations exploded. On Planet Finance, the securities outnumbered the people; the transactions outnumbered the relationships.

more from Vanity Fair here.

finnish is more better

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I admit, I don’t spend a lot of time comparing English to Finnish. Someone far more qualified than me has, tho — that’s Tero Ykspetäjä, a science-fiction fanzine editor and recent guest blogger at Jeff Vandermeer’s Ecstatic Days. In addition to posting about about science fiction in Finland, he came up with the Top Five Reasons Finnish Is Cooler Than English.

1. Finnish is more equal. We don’t have gender-specific personal pronouns, there’s just “hän” meaning both “he” and “she”. This is sometimes a problem for translators, but otherwise pretty neat. It also means we don’t have a language-related problem with people who don’t identify either as a he or a she, and maybe are therefore a little better equipped to treat them more normally in other respects too. If you want, feel free to borrow the word from us. We don’t mind.
2. We have more letters than you do. Your little alphabet ends with z, but we also have å, ä, and ö. And no, those aren’t umlauts. They are totally different letters that just look like a and o with umlauts. And more is naturally better.

more from the LA Times here.

ted hughes and the hoo-ha

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There are two ways to talk about the new Letters of Ted Hughes (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $45), edited by Christopher Reid. The first is to approach Hughes’s correspondence as an illuminating aesthetic record, the clearest insight we’re likely to get into the mind of a poet viewed by some critics as one of the major writers of the 20th century. The second way is to discuss, well, “It.” “It,” of course, is what Hughes called “the Fantasia,” the swirling, ­decades-long hoo-ha brought about by his relationship with Sylvia Plath: their brief, difficult marriage; their separation due to Hughes’s affair with Assia Wevill; and Plath’s suicide shortly thereafter. “It” ultimately involved a series of bitter clashes over Plath’s legacy, the occasional illicit removal of the surname “Hughes” from her tombstone (by aggrieved “Bell Jar” fans), a series of disputed biographies, at least one lawsuit, endless critical appraisals, re­appraisals and re-­reappraisals, a lame song by Ryan Adams (“I wish I had a Sylvia Plath,” Adams croons, apparently unaware that they don’t come in six-packs) and the inevitable film featuring Gwyneth Paltrow flopping around with Daniel Craig. “It” is a big deal.

more from the NY Times here.

Saturday Poem

///
“Just because your opponent bit the dust doesn’t mean
you won’t wind up on the ropes eating crow and spitting blood.”
………………………………..Boris Platski, sub-prime boxing guru

Ode to Karl Marx
John Forbes

Old father of the horrible bride whose
wedding cake has finally collapsed, you

spoke the truth that doesn’t set us free—
it’s like a lever made of words no one’s

learnt to operate. So the machine it once
connected to just accelerates & each new

rapdance video’s a perfect image of this,
bodies going faster and faster, still dancing

on the spot. At the moment tho’ this setup
works for me, being paid to sit & write &

smoke, thumbing through Adorno like New Idea
on a cold working day in Ballarat, where

adult unemployment is 22% & all your grand
schemata of intricate cause and effect

work out like this: take a muscle car &
wire its accelerator to the floor, take out

the brakes, the gears the steering wheel
& let it rip.  The dumbest tattooed hoon

—mortal diamond hanging around the mall—
knows what happens next.  It’s fun unless

you’re strapped inside the car.  I’m not,
but the dummies they use for testing are.

///

The mischievous oracle

From The Guardian:

Quantum: Einstein, Bohr, and the Great Debate About the Nature of Reality by Manjit Kumar

Quantum1 Manjit Kumar’s book is an exhaustive and brilliant account of decades of emotionally charged discovery and argument, friendship and rivalry spanning two world wars. In what also has to operate as a kind of group biography of Planck, Einstein, Bohr, Heisenberg, Pauli, Dirac et al, the quasi-novelistic character sketches occasionally have a comic quality (“The son of a tax collector, Ludwig Boltzmann was short and stout with an impressive late 19th-century beard”); but the real meat of the book is the explanations of science and philosophical interpretation, which are pitched with an ideal clarity for the general reader. Perhaps most interestingly, although the author is admirably even-handed, it is difficult not to think of Quantum, by the end, as a resounding rehabilitation of Albert Einstein.

You might have thought that Einstein, the most famous scientist who ever lived, was not much in need of rehabilitation. But for a long time, the standard story of his reaction to quantum theory painted him as a grouchy old man, whose great work was long in the past, and who could no longer accept novel ideas. The truth, as Kumar shows, is very different.

For a start, Einstein was himself a pioneer of quantum theory, having suggested in 1913 that light was quantised — in other words, that it was not smoothly continuous, but could only exist in multiples of very small packets, or quanta. At the time, Kumar relates, this was “just too radical for physicists to accept”. Two decades later, the great Danish physicist Niels Bohr and his colleagues, who had taken this idea and run with it, had become too radical for Einstein to accept.

More here.

Heavy Reading

James Campbell in The New York Times:

A Great Idea At the Time: The Rise, Fall, and Curious Afterlife of Great Books by Alex Beam.

Campbell190 The humble book has survived many attacks on its integrity over the centuries, whether from tyrannical clerics or fearful governments or the new electronic wizard that promises a peculiarly modern “pleasure of the text” via limitless accessibility. Nevertheless, publishers continue to produce books, while countless numbers of people read them and — a word that crops up frequently in relation to books — love them.

In the middle of the last century, a committee of commercially minded academics came up with its own strategy to undermine the enjoyment of reading. With the backing of the University of Chicago, Robert Maynard Hutchins, Mortimer Adler and a few others whittled the literary, scientific and philosophical canon down to 443 exemplary works. They had them bound in 54 black leatherette volumes, with the overall designation Great Books of the Western World, then hired genial salesmen to knock on suburban doors and make promises of fulfilment through knowledge. In a postwar world in which educational self-improvement seemed within everyone’s reach, the Great Books could be presented as an item of intellectual furniture, rather like their prototype, the Encyclopedia Britannica (which also backed the project). Whereas the Britannica justified its hulking presence in the home as a reference tool, however, the Great Books made a more strident demand — they wanted to be read. Unfortunately, once opened, the volumes were forbidding. Each was a small library in its own right, with slabs of text arranged in monumental double columns. The Great Books of the Western World were what books should not be: an antidote to pleasure.

The great minds behind the Great Books were Hutchins and Adler.

More here.

Scammer scammed

No doubt you are aware of what are known as “419” scams. Emails that begin with things like “I am the widow of the former President of Nigeria,” and then promise you a fee of millions of dollars for arranging some transaction. [Read here about a woman who lost $400,000 to a Nigerian scammer!] There is also a whole cadre of devoted people who spend inordinate amounts of time and energy scamming the scammers back. This is a particularly hilarious account of one such scheme, where a man named Arthur Dent manages to convince the scammer to copy all of a Harry Potter book out in longhand and send the scanned pages to him. It is particularly gratifying to read the exchange as the scammer becomes more and more desperate.

From 419 Eater [This is the first reply by Arthur Dent to the scammer’s email]:

From: Arthur Dent
To: Barrister Musa Issah
Date: January 23, 2006

Dear Mr. Issah,

Thank you very much for you interesting email, it was kind of you to contact me with your proposition.

Unfortunately I am not in a position to help you at this point in time as my company are conducting a very important 4 year long research project on Advanced Handwriting Recognition and Graphology systems.

Our work is extremely intensive and vitally important for our clients. They have committed over eight million dollars to our project and we are nearing the final stages. After nearly 4 years of research and development we are now only three months away from the conclusion and I am afraid I can allow nothing to interfere with the project until its completion.

We are always looking for paid volunteers to help with our project. If you are aware of anyone who would like to earn money by helping with our project by providing samples of their own handwriting to us then please do read the submission information below. We pay US $100.00 per page of handwriting samples.

Sincerely,

Arthur Dent BSC. HHGTTG. PhD.
Director
Singlesideband Systems

Read the rest here.