Saturday Poem

Deep Time

In the nuclear twilight
the animals, the plants
and the minerals of the earth
have acquired unparalleled powers
many times greater than those of humans.

Eras elapse:

Cactaceacene
Birguscene
Limulidacene.

The colors bleed out of things
and glob together in the sand
which radiates with increasing intensity
and soaring saturation

and all the markets
that have piled up
haphazardly over the centuries

collapse one by one

until the whole
ramshackle structure
comes down

and forms a hard, geometric puddle
of dead currency
teeming with animals.

New organisms spring up everywhere
in an explosion of life
of Cambrian proportions.

On an ancient island
of plastic
polystyrene mosses multiply
in the shadow
of venerable, old polystyrene trees.

Here live the spirits of mankind.

by  Dominique De Groen
from Poetry International, 2018
© Translation: 2018, Jonathan William Beaton

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Life on Earth – how has science changed in 40 years?

Adam Rutherford in The Guardian:

Somewhere in my parents’ photo albums there is a picture of me, aged seven or eight, lying in my bed, reading. On the wall, there are postcards from holidays, a poster of space pirate Han Solo crouching above a fictional snow lizard called a Tauntaun, and a picture of an equally alien but very real cephalopod, a nautilus, a mollusc with a pin-hole eye and tentacular cirri projecting from its tiger-striped shell. It was cut out from the second copy of Life on Earth that my father had acquired, the book that accompanied the BBC series by David Attenborough. The first was for reading, the second, bought cheap without a dust cover, was for the photos.

It’s difficult for me to appraise the work of Attenborough critically. I do what I do, to a large degree because of what he has done. Like so many people of my vintage, seeing the wonder of nature with him as our guide was inestimably influential in steering us towards science. That first book was published on Charles Darwin’s 170th birthday, a fitting tribute to the greatest idea anyone has ever had. I approached the 40th anniversary edition with a cautious awe. It does not disappoint. The new Life on Earth is as glorious as the first, if not more so for the sole reason that it has been considerably updated. Science never rests, and while the overarching Darwinian ideas in the 1979 edition are correct, many of the details have moved onwards significantly. It’s not simply that we have observed more of nature with ever increasingly sophisticated technology. Ideas about biodiversity and mass extinctions are now prominently included, and the revelation – now textbook – that birds are dinosaurs is front and centre, having been dismissed the first time round.

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October 12, 2018

Denying Women’s Ability to Know

Elizabeth Winkler in The New Republic:

Last week Donna Strickland, an associate professor at the University of Waterloo, won the Nobel Prize in Physics. She is the third woman to be awarded the prize in its history—Marie Curie received it in 1903 and Maria Goeppert Mayer in 1963—but as recently as last May, Wikipedia rejected a draft page about Strickland on the grounds that she did not meet “notability guidelines.” The work for which she received the Nobel—generating the “shortest and most intense laser pulses ever created by mankind,” according to the prize committee—is over 30 years old. She published the groundbreaking paper, with co-authors and now co–Nobel winners Gerard Mourou and Arthur Ashkin, in 1985. Between then and now she has won many prizes, but it took a Nobel for her to become Wikipedia-worthy.

On the same day that Strickland became a Nobel laureate and Wikipedia’s editors quickly threw together a page about her, President Donald Trump used a rally in Mississippi to ridicule Christine Blasey Ford, the psychologist who testified of her assault at the hands of Brett Kavanaugh, who has since been sworn in as a Supreme Court justice. Trump’s words were cruel. He elicited laughter at Ford’s expense, making her trauma—and that of all sexual assault survivors—into the stuff of jokes.

More here.

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The pragmatist philosopher William James had a crisp and consistent response when asked if life was worth living: maybe

John Kaag in Aeon:

A year ago, on a late afternoon in November, I decided to walk the seven miles from my hotel in Manhattan to Brooklyn’s Community Bookstore. It was a cool day, on the cusp of evening, at a moment when things, even grimy New York-type of things, seem to glow, and I was so busy looking around that I almost didn’t notice the small white sign that someone had placed at the bottom of Brooklyn Bridge. The green lettering was newly painted and read: ‘LIFE IS WORTH LIVING.’

For many people, life’s worth is never in question. It never becomes a topic of conversation or debate. Life is simply lived until it is not. But something bothered me: if life’s worth is so obvious, why was the sign put up in the first place? It is because there are those of us who occasionally find themselves on the top of the bridge, contemplating a quick and fatal trip to the bottom. Decades after battling depression in 1870, the American philosopher William James wrote to the philosopher and poet Benjamin Paul Blood that ‘no man is educated who has never dallied with the thought of suicide’.

In the 1770s, David Hume, one of James’s intellectual heroes, had argued that self-murder should not be regarded as illegal or immoral since it hurt no one other than the perpetrator, and in many cases might alleviate great suffering. Romanticism, which arose in the subsequent generation of thinkers, only deepened the sense that life – and death – should be determined freely, by passionate individuals.

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The Catholic Sex-Abuse Scandal: What Happens Next?

Emma Green at The Atlantic:

It’s likely, however, that problems facing the American clerics are only going to get worse. As Jack Jenkins of Religion News Service reported in September, law-enforcement officials in a half dozen states or more are planning to undertake their own versions of the Pennsylvania grand-jury report. And a number of bishops—including the current president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, who oversees the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston—are also facing allegations of covering up or mishandling abuse in their dioceses.

These developments are a stark reminder that the Catholic sex-abuse crisis is far from over. Perhaps for the first time, the bishops are attempting to take responsibility for the deep wound they have created in the Church: The USCCB has initiated a series of discussions around possible reform measures and has already announced a first wave of those reforms.

more here.

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The Vengeance of Artemisia Gentileschi

Jenni Murray at Literary Hub:

Artemisia was well known as an artist of the Italian Baroque in her day and was considered one of the most accomplished painters in the generation that followed Caravaggio. In an era when it was tough for a woman to become anything other than a wife or a nun, she was the first woman admitted to the prestigious Accademia delle Arte del Disegno in Florence, and she counted dukes, princes, cardinals and kings among her clients. She wrote of her success to her friend, the astronomer Galileo, in 1635. “I have seen myself honoured by all the kings and rulers of Europe to whom I have sent my works, not only with great gifts, but also with most favoured letters, which I keep with me.”

But, as has happened to so many great women of the past, she disappeared from public consciousness, from museums, catalogues and exhibitions for some four hundred years. Ripe for rediscovery, she was put back in her rightful place by the women’s movement in the twentieth century.

more here.

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How Big Tech Poisoned Politics

Steven Poole at The New Statesman:

Last month, Apple unveiled the latest version of its watch, featuring new health-monitoring features such as alerts for unusually low or high heart rates, and a way to sense when the wearer has fallen over and, if so, call the emergency services. In itself, that sounds pretty cool, and might even help save lives. But it’s also another nail in the coffin of social solidarity.

Why? Because shortly after the Apple announcement, one of America’s biggest insurance companies, John Hancock, announced it would stop selling traditional life insurance, and would now offer only “interactive” policies that required customers to wear a health-monitoring device – such as an Apple Watch or Fitbit. But such personalised insurance plans undermine the social spreading of risk that makes insurance a public good. Knowing every little dirty secret about our lifestyles, such an insurer will be heavily incentivised to make the riskier customers pay more in premiums than the healthy-livers.

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The Red Baron

Kwame Anthony Appiah in the New York Review of Books:

Michael Young, London, 1997

Michael Young was an inconvenient child. His father, an Australian, was a musician and music critic, and his mother, who grew up in Ireland, was a painter of a bohemian bent. They were hard-up, distractible, and frequently on the outs with each other; Michael, born in 1915 in Manchester, soon found that neither had much time for him. Once when his parents had seemingly forgotten his birthday, he imagined that he was in for a big end-of-day surprise. But no, they really had forgotten his birthday, which was no surprise at all. He overheard his parents talk about putting him up for adoption and, by his own account, never fully shed his fear of abandonment.

Everything changed for him when, at the age of fourteen, he was sent to an experimental boarding school at Dartington Hall in Devon. It was the creation of the great progressive philanthropists Leonard and Dorothy Elmhirst, and it sought to change society by changing souls. There it was as if he had been put up for adoption, because the Elmhirsts treated him as a son, encouraging and supporting him for the rest of their lives. Suddenly he was a member of the transnational elite: dining with President Roosevelt, listening in on a conversation between Leonard and Henry Ford.

Young, who has been called the greatest practical sociologist of the past century, pioneered the modern scientific exploration of the social lives of the English working class. He didn’t just aim to study class, though; he aimed to ameliorate the damage he believed it could do.

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Hegelian Themes: Robert Pippin interviewed by Richard Marshall

Richard Marshall in 3:AM Magazine:

Robert Pippin is an expert on Kant, Hegel, Idealism, Nietzsche, modernism and philosophy of film. Here he discusses Hegel and Kant, links between logic as metaphysics and modern developments in the philosophy of logic, self-consciousness, Hegel’s view about the social characteristic of subjectivity and normativity, John McDowell and Robert Brandom, the dynamism of reason in Kant and Hegel, life as a logical category, the unity of the idea of the true and the idea of the good in the ‘Absolute Idea’, Hitchcock’s Virtigo and Zizek, aspects of the Dreyfus – McDowell debate, and Nietzsche’s idea of philosophy as psychology.

3:AM: What made you become a philosopher?

Robert Pippin: I was a literature major in college and became especially interested in European literature that seemed to me suffused with philosophical ambition; work by Rilke, Beckett, Proust, Musil, Mann, and in philosophers whose work had a literary dimension, like Plato, Hegel, and Nietzsche. .Since that was what interested me, I decided, after having taken as many philosophy as literature courses, and really at the last possible minute, to go to graduate school in philosophy.

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Orwell’s World

Robert Butler in MIL:

IF THERE WERE to be a statue outside the BBC’s new offices in central London that captured the spirit of its modish interior of “workstation clusters”, “back-to-back booths” and “touchdown areas”, and the daily struggle of the 5,500 employees to produce content across multiple platforms for an audience of 240m, it might be that of the anxious, well-fed, middle-aged, middle-class white male, with a lanyard dangling over his hi-vis jacket, who is running late for his meeting and struggling to fold his Brompton bicycle. That would be Ian Fletcher, the over-stretched head of values (played by Hugh Bonneville) and central character in “W1A”, the BBC’s sprightly satire about itself. But Fletcher is not the one who will be on the plinth outside Broadcasting House. In 2016 a statue of George Orwell—paid for by Michael Frayn, Tom Stoppard, David Hare and Rowan Atkinson among others—will be unveiled, a few yards beyond the outdoor ping-pong table.

Orwell spent a mere two years (1941-43) at the BBC, which he joined as a talks assistant in the Indian section of the Eastern Service. No recording survives of him giving a talk, which is perhaps fitting; for what is most striking about his essays and journalism is the tart, compelling timbre of his voice. The critic Cyril Connolly, an exact contemporary, thought that only D.H. Lawrence rivalled Orwell in the degree to which his personality “shines out in everything he said or wrote”. Any reader of Orwell’s non-fiction will pick up on the brisk, buttonholing manner (“two things are immediately obvious”), the ear-catching assertions (“the Great War…could never have happened if tinned food had not been invented”) and the squashing epithets: “miry”, “odious”, “squalid”, “hideous”, “mealy-mouthed”, “beastly”, “boneless”, “fetid” and—a term he could have applied to himself—“frowsy”.

Orwell might well have damned this new honour too. In his studio on the edge of the Blenheim estate in Oxfordshire, Martin Jennings, the sculptor working on the eight-foot likeness, told me that Orwell had made some disobliging remarks about public statues, thinking that they got in the way of perfectly good views. The bronze Orwell will look down on the comings and goings of BBC staff who, returning his gaze, can read some chiselled wisdom from his works on the wall behind him. The Financial Times recently called Orwell “the true patron saint of our profession”, another tribute he would probably resist. “Saints”, he warned, “should always be judged guilty until they are proved innocent.”

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This Golden Canopy Could Power 500 Homes

Emily Matchar in Smithsonian:

In the rendering, the structure looks like an enormous golden wave, spilling from the Upper Esplanade of Melbourne’s St Kilda Beach, crossing a busy road and crashing onto the sand. In reality, it would be a canopy of nearly 9,000 flexible photovoltaic panels designed to connect a shopping and entertainment district with the beach while generating renewable energy.  Called “Light Up,” the proposal is the winner of a contest sponsored by the Land Art Generator Initiative (LAGI), an organization whose goal is to “accelerate the transition to post-carbon economies by providing models of renewable energy infrastructure that add value to public space, inspire, and educate.” They’ve been hosting biannual competitions for green energy-generating public art since 2010. Each contest has been centered on a different location—a Copenhagen shipyard, a Dubai desert road, a Santa Monica waterfront—that presents an urban design challenge. The challenge for the Melbourne competition involved creating a sense of cohesion for the “St Kilda Triangle,” an area bounded by a hilltop market area, busy Jacka Boulevard and an entertainment district containing a historic theater and the city’s iconic Luna Park amusement park, all adjacent to the popular beach. The area, which is pedestrian-unfriendly, harshly sunny and blighted with an ugly sprawling parking lot, has been a topic of redevelopment debate for years.

…The proposal would have the solar panel canopy cover a large stretch of street, creating shade below and a bridge to the beach above. In addition to the solar panels, the proposal includes wind power generated by the swaying bridge and microbial fuel cells. Combined, it could produce enough energy to power 500 Australian homes in addition to the site’s theater and amusement park. Lithium-ion cells from used electric car batteries embedded in the handrails of the bridge can store excess energy generated by the panels. This extra energy can then be fed back into the grid. The plan includes designs for a hotel and cultural center as well, with the intention of making the area a new urban landmark.

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October 11, 2018

Reflections on the legacy of critical theory

Seyla Benhabib in the Boston Review:

May 1968 marked the political awakening of my generation. I was a junior at the American College for Girls in Istanbul at the time, feeling the revolutionary winds as a young Jewish woman in a predominantly Muslim society and because of the anti-Americanism precipitated by the Vietnam War. Pictures of napalm attacks on Vietnamese children and adults circulated among us during lunch hours. And when the U.S. Navy’s Sixth Fleet scheduled a visit to Istanbul, and many boyfriends, relatives, and others were clubbed by the police, our sense of political disappointment with and opposition to U.S. policies increased.

Living in Istanbul, we knew that the wider political world was on fire. Soviet tanks crushed the Prague reform movement under Alexander Dubček and the “socialism with a human face” experiment. Students built barricades in Paris and confronted the police. And the countercultural movement in the United States challenged the pieties of bourgeois decorum. The continuing Israeli-Palestinian conflict was personally devastating: I feared for the continuing existence of Israel after the 1967 war, while feeling moral outrage and pain at the oppression and occupation of Palestinian Arabs.

May 1968 saw our revolt against the oppressive conformism of the postwar Pax Americana. We hoped for liberation from the spirit of consumerism, the shackles of the patriarchy, bourgeois family, nationalism, militarism, and much else. No theoretical tradition captured the aspirations I shared with many contemporaries as well as the critical theory of the Frankfurt School. My intellectual journey from Istanbul to Frankfurt began with Herbert Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man (1964), which I read that fateful spring.

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Major Climate Report Describes a Strong Risk of Crisis as Early as 2040

Coral Davenport in the New York Times:

A landmark report from the United Nations’ scientific panel on climate change paints a far more dire picture of the immediate consequences of climate change than previously thought and says that avoiding the damage requires transforming the world economy at a speed and scale that has “no documented historic precedent.”

The report, issued on Monday by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a group of scientists convened by the United Nations to guide world leaders, describes a world of worsening food shortages and wildfires, and a mass die-off of coral reefs as soon as 2040 — a period well within the lifetime of much of the global population.

The report “is quite a shock, and quite concerning,” said Bill Hare, an author of previous I.P.C.C. reports and a physicist with Climate Analytics, a nonprofit organization. “We were not aware of this just a few years ago.” The report was the first to be commissioned by world leaders under the Paris agreement, the 2015 pact by nations to fight global warming.

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A Greek tragedy: how the EU is destroying a country

Jonathon Bond in The Spectator:

‘Now Greece can finally turn the page in a crisis that has lasted too long. The worst is over.’ With these triumphant words, Pierre Moscovici, the EU Commissioner for Economic and Financial Affairs, declared an end to the EU’s eight-year €289 billion bailout programme to Greece, the largest rescue in financial history.

Except Greece’s financial crisis isn’t by any means over — and the EU’s blithe and self-congratulatory announcement is a stain on Brussels’s moral authority. As a Greek property owner, a committed Grecophile and a disappointed Remoaner, I have witnessed with rising horror the slow water-boarding of the Greek population over the last eight years. Every one of my Greek friends has a tale to tell of families under intolerable pressure, of parents forced to leave their infant children to seek work overseas, and of grandparents funding two generations of unemployed adults from their diminishing savings and from meagre pensions already savagely cut by the EU.

The EU has enforced a 25 per cent contraction in the size of the Greek economy during the last eight years (more severe than the great American depression of the 1930s) and its fiscal punishments have caused youth unemployment to reach a staggering 44 per cent.

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Oscar Wilde in America

Wendy Graham at The Dublin Review of Books:

After decades of attention to Oscar Wilde’s 1895 trials and his incarnation of the homosexual subject, a spate of recent publications reconsiders his 1882 American lecture tour, among them David Friedman’s Wilde in America (2014), Roy Morris Jr’s Declaring His Genius: Oscar Wilde in North America (2013), and Sharon Marcus’s “Salomé!! Sarah Bernhardt, Oscar Wilde, and the Drama of Celebrity” (2011). Editors Matthew Hofer and Gary Scharnhorst set the stage for this reappraisal by assembling the first complete and reliable record of Wilde’s interviews in Oscar Wilde in America: The Interviews (2010). While these publications illuminate Wilde’s redefinition of Victorian masculinity, they also highlight his self-promotion, burgeoning celebrity, and vending of aestheticism before he became a gay icon. To this compendium, Michèle Mendelssohn adds an exciting new chapter, or one so old that it deserves fresh examination. She ponders coverage of the Irish aesthete Wilde, which harmonised with racist caricatures of black dandies in American minstrel shows and newspapers. Back in 1882, Lloyd Lewis and Henry Justin Smith’s Oscar Wilde Discovers America offered a whistle stop account of Wilde’s tour replete with historical magazine illustrations, reviews, and gossip, which frequently conflated aestheticism with race matters. A juxtaposition that seemed unremarkable and inoffensive in 1882 receives extensive scholarly elaboration in Mendelssohn’s fascinating book.

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‘Female Human Animal’

Kate Webb at the TLS:

“I was born in the wrong century”, the London-based Mexican novelist Chloe Aridjis announces near the beginning of Female Human Animal. Josh Appignanesi’s new film is a knowing blend of the assured and the amateurish which understands its place in cinema history, and consequently has a lot of fun playing around in it. The times are soulless Aridjis declares, quoting her idol, Leonora Carrington; but she is a romantic nevertheless, a would-be adventurer searching for love, so she adds: “You have to keep giving the century a chance. See what happens”. It’s a sentiment that reflects the film’s attitude: the times may be bad but you still have to roll the dice, play the game, put on a show.

The show being put on here is an exhibition of Carrington’s work at Tate Liverpool which Aridjis, because of her friendship with the English-born Surrealist, was asked to curate. But just what kind of a show are we watching?

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Tales from the Gulag

Catherine Brown at Literary Review:

This collection of stories forms a Gulag memoir to rival Solzhenitsyn’s, as Solzhenitsyn himself acknowledged. Between 1954 and 1973, after fifteen years spent mainly in the camps of the Kolyma region of northeast Siberia, Varlam Shalamov (1907–82) poured out stories that – once the Khrushchev thaw was halted – he knew might never be published.

In 1968 Kolyma Stories was leaked to the West and in 1980 it appeared in an English translation by John Glad. The publication of this book and a forthcoming companion will more than double the amount of Shalamov’s work available in English. Donald Rayfield’s translation is clear, idiomatic and sound, though no translator could hope to render exactly the roughness of Russian criminal slang into English. Anglophone readers can now catch up with Russian children, who have studied Shalamov’s stories since they were released during perestroika in 1988. Russia’s attempt to come to terms with its past may still have a way to go, but the inclusion of Shalamov’s work on the national curriculum is at least a good sign.

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In Literature, Who Decides When Homage Becomes Theft?

Ligaya Mishan in The New York Times:

IN JANUARY, the critic and novelist Francine Prose took to Facebook to express her outrage at a short story in the latest issue of The New Yorker by a relatively unknown writer named Sadia Shepard. Second-guessing The New Yorker’s fiction department is something of a parlor game among members of the literati, but Prose wasn’t interested in quibbling over aesthetics. To her, the story, titled “Foreign-Returned,” about Pakistani expatriates adrift in Stamford, Conn., was a flagrant rip-off of Mavis Gallant’s “The Ice Wagon Going Down the Street,” about Canadian expatriates adrift in Geneva, Switzerland, and also published in The New Yorker, in 1963. “It’s just wrong,” Prose declared, setting off a skirmish on social media that rallied other acclaimed writers, including Alexander Chee, Jess Row, Gina Apostol and Salman Rushdie, to Shepard’s defense.

Six years earlier, a similar scenario of influence and homage had unfolded, also involving two stories published more than half a century apart, also both in The New Yorker, because the literary world is that small. (Full disclosure: I was once on the magazine’s editorial staff, but not when any of these stories appeared.) “Referential,” by the short-story master Lorrie Moore, opens with two people fretting over what birthday present to give a deranged and hospitalized young man and ends with the hollow ring of a telephone — the same trajectory traced by Vladimir Nabokov’s 1948 “Symbols and Signs” (later retitled “Signs and Symbols”). Like Shepard, Moore diverges from her source in details but cleaves to its structure so closely that the likeness is undeniable. Yet Moore received no public censure, no scolding from a critic of Prose’s stature and power. For the same act, one writer was called out, the other given a pass.

Neither was trespassing. There’s long, honorable precedent for revisiting and recasting the work of fellow writers, communing and wrestling with predecessors and contemporaries alike; it’s essential to art as a sustained exploration of the human condition over time. So why the imbalance in response? Perhaps, paradoxically, Moore’s take on Nabokov seems more “acceptable” precisely because she doesn’t stray too far from the original, doesn’t subvert it, but simply and deftly applies a light, modern gloss with her incisive observations of domesticity and her trademark mordant wit. Her characters — white, educated, middle-class — are readily identifiable as part of Western literature, possessing their leading roles as if born to them. Shepard’s are not: They’re drawn from her background as the American-born daughter of a white father and a mother who was both Pakistani, with roots in a country once colonized by and subordinate to the West, and Muslim, part of a group increasingly demonized in today’s political rhetoric. Shepard’s approach to Gallant, and the Western literary tradition, is thus more radical. As an outsider, she is refusing to “know her place” on the margins and is instead writing herself into the canon, making — taking — a space where none might otherwise be granted.

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