The Making of Malcolm X

Kerri Greenidge in The Atlantic:

To anyone walking through Roxbury, Massachusetts, the sounds that waft over Dale Street are far away—the fart of buses on Washington Street to the west and on Warren Street to the east. The sidewalk that abuts the bowfront brick rowhouses and wood-frame two-families with porch railings and multiple mailboxes feels comfortably quiet. And it is possible to forget that the recently renamed Nubian Square—Roxbury’s central business district—is less than a 10-minute walk away. In the early 1940s, when Boston’s El towered over what was then called Dudley Square, Ella Mae Little-Collins purchased a two-and-a-half-story house at 72 Dale Street, not far from Washington Park, and invited her 15-year-old half brother, Malcolm, to move in with her. Over the next five years, until he was arrested in January 1946 on charges of larceny, breaking and entering, and illegal possession of a firearm, Malcolm Little lived off and on at No. 72, walking the streets of Roxbury and the South End in his wide-brimmed hats and zoot suits.

When he described 1940s Black Boston to Alex Haley as they worked together on The Autobiography of Malcolm X, two decades of distance had left him with barely concealed disdain for the Dale Street neighborhood. The cocky teenager had once marveled at the number of Black people in Dudley Square and the upper South End. But the man known variously as “East Lansing Red,” Prisoner 22843, Malcolm X, and Malik el-Shabazz told Haley that the enclave where he and Ella once lived was a bastion of middle-class Black pretension and snobbery. Yet despite this disavowal, Black Boston had a profound effect on the figure whom the artist-activist Shirley Graham Du Bois later referred to as “the most promising and effective leader of American Negroes in this century.”

More here.

Did Galileo Truly Say, ‘And Yet It Moves’? A Modern Detective Story

Mario Livio in Scientific American:

“And yet it moves.” This may be the most famous line attributed to the renowned scientist Galileo Galilei. The “it” in the quote refers to Earth.  “It moves” was a startling denial of the notion, adopted by the Catholic Church at the time, that Earth was at the center of the universe and therefore stood still. Galileo was convinced that model was wrong. Although he could not prove it, his astronomical observations and his experiments in mechanics led him to conclude that Earth and the other planets were revolving around the sun. That brings us to “and yet.” As much as Galileo may have hoped to convince the Church that in moving Earth from its anointed position, he was not contradicting Scripture, he did not fully appreciate that Church officials could not accept what they regarded as his impudent invasion into their exclusive province: theology.

During his trial for suspicion of heresy, Galileo chose his words carefully. It was only after the trial, angered by his conviction no doubt, that he was said to have muttered to the inquisitors, “Eppur si muove”(“And yet it moves)”as if to say that they may have won this battle, but in the end, truth would win out. But did Galileo really utter those famous words? There is no doubt that he thought along those lines. His bitterness about the trial; the fact that he had been forced to abjure and recant his life’s work; the humiliating reality that his book Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems had been put on the Church’s Index of Prohibited Books; and his deep contempt for the inquisitors who judged him continually occupied his mind for all the years following the trial. We can also be certain that he did not (as legend has it) mutter that phrase in front of the inquisitors. Doing so would have been insanely risky. But did he say it at all? If not, when and how did the myth about this motto start circulating?

More here.

On Jewish Community and Identity in Jacques Derrida’s Algeria

Peter Salmon at Literary Hub:

The question of where the Juifs d’Algérie, the community into which Jackie was born, fitted into Algerian society was, inevitably, a complex one. Derrida’s family were Sephardic, and claimed roots from Toledo in Spain. In 1870, Algerian Jews were granted French citizenship by the Crémieux Decree, which brought their rights in line with the rest of the pied-noir (black foot, i.e. wearing shoes) population of Algeria. The majority Muslim population had no such rights, and were subject to the Code de l’indigénat, which gave them, at best, second-class status before the law. Although tensions had not reached the scale that would lead to and accompany the Algerian War, they were already present. At the same cinemas where Aimé and Georgette had watched Chaplin, Algerians “clapped and cheered when the hero made stirring speeches about Swiss independence in William Tell and when the Foreign Legionnaire heroes in Le Hommes Sans Nom(The Men with No Name) were shot by Moroccan insurgents.”

more here.

Urdu Poetry, The Soviet Union And India’s Right-Wing Government

Gargi Binju at 3:AM Magazine:

As real border walls were being put up, so were metaphorical borders. The Urdu writers had been published freely in both countries until this point. There were hardly any Urdu literary journals at the time in India because Indian Urdu writers had published in Pakistan where the readership was larger; Urdu being Pakistan’s national language. The war changed that. New Urdu journals arose in India, most notably Shabkhoon launched by Shamsur Rahman Faruqi in Allahabad. Writers, Urdu or not, wanted to address the crisis of the war. They criticized the Progressives because their answers were old and dated. Marxists and Socialists were under attack in both Pakistan and India. In Pakistan, there was a call of national cultural unity, with Urdu at its center. Before this year, Bhasha Poetry, which freely took words from Indian languages other than Urdu was popular in Pakistan. After, the form quietly died.

more here.

Thursday Poem

Family Trees

—for the 2016 Guam Soil and Water Conservation Districts’ Educator Symposium


Before we enter the jungle, my dad
asks permission of the spirits who dwell
within. He walks slowly, with care,
to teach me, like his father taught him,
how to show respect. Then he stops
and closes his eyes to teach me
how to listenEkungok, as the winds
exhale and billow the canopy, tremble
the understory, and conduct the wild
orchestra of all breathing things.


“Niyok, Lemmai, Ifit, Yoga’, Nunu,” he chants
in a tone of reverence, calling forth the names
of each tree, each elder, who has provided us
with food and medicine, clothes and tools,
canoes and shelter. Like us, they grew in dark
wombs, sprouted from seeds, were nourished
by the light. Like us, they survived the storms
of conquest. Like us, roots anchor them to this
island, giving breath, giving strength to reach
towards the Pacific sky and blossom.


“When you take,” my dad says, “Take with
gratitude, and never more than what you need.”
He teaches me the phrase, “eminent domain,”
which means “theft,” means “to turn a place
of abundance into a base of destruction.”
The military uprooted trees with bulldozers,
paved the fertile earth with concrete, and planted
toxic chemicals and ordnances in the ground.
Barbed wire fences spread like invasive vines,
whose only fruit are the cancerous tumors
that bloom on every branch of our family tree.

Read more »

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Biology’s next great horizon is to understand cells, tissues and organisms as agents with agendas

Michael Levin and Daniel C. Dennett in Aeon:

Biologists like to think of themselves as properly scientific behaviourists, explaining and predicting the ways that proteins, organelles, cells, plants, animals and whole biota behave under various conditions, thanks to the smaller parts of which they are composed. They identify causal mechanisms that reliably execute various functions such as copying DNA, attacking antigens, photosynthesising, discerning temperature gradients, capturing prey, finding their way back to their nests and so forth, but they don’t think that this acknowledgment of functions implicates them in any discredited teleology or imputation of reasons and purposes or understanding to the cells and other parts of the mechanisms they investigate.

But when cognitive science turned its back on behaviourism more than 50 years ago and began dealing with signals and internal maps, goals and expectations, beliefs and desires, biologists were torn. All right, they conceded, people and some animals have minds; their brains are physical minds – not mysterious dualistic minds – processing information and guiding purposeful behaviour; animals without brains, such as sea squirts, don’t have minds, nor do plants or fungi or microbes. They resisted introducing intentional idioms into their theoretical work, except as useful metaphors when teaching or explaining to lay audiences. Genes weren’t really selfish, antibodies weren’t really seeking, cells weren’t really figuring out where they were. These little biological mechanisms weren’t really agents with agendas, even though thinking of them as if they were often led to insights.

We think that this commendable scientific caution has gone too far, putting biologists into a straitjacket that prevents them from exploring the most promising hypotheses, just as behaviourism prevented psychologists from seeing how their subjects’ measurable behaviour could be interpreted as effects of hopes, beliefs, plans, fears, intentions, distractions and so forth.

More here.

The Prescience of Shelby Steele

Samuel Kronen in Quillette:

Shelby Steele is experiencing a revival. For over 30 years, the controversial black American essayist and culture critic has consistently produced some of the most original insights to be found on the precarious issue of race in America and has been met with reactions that range from reverence to revulsion. Usually, it’s one reaction or the other. To his critics, Steele is a race traitor, a contrarian black conservative who makes a living assuaging the guilty consciences of whites at the expense of his own people. To his admirers, he is a lone voice of clarity in the chaos of America’s racial discourse who, at 74 years of age, continues to speak uncomfortable and disconcerting truths to power. But his greatest strength may turn out to be a knack for anticipation. As the social upheavals inspired by America’s “racial reckoning” rage on, Steele’s work now looks prescient—it identified the underlying forces that would eventually shape our explosive cultural moment, and offers a more honest accounting of our past and present.

More here.

Nicholson Baker In The Labyrinths Of American Secrecy

Charlie Savage at The Nation:

Baker has long been intrigued by the fact that the declassified versions of government documents concerning bioweapons from this era that are available still tend to be heavily censored. The continued secrecy, for him, raises a striking question: What other information do these documents contain that remains so sensitive after all this time that the US government continues to hide it from the American public and the rest of the world under these redactions?

Baker—a pacifist who previously wrote Human Smoke, which controversially suggested that World War II was not worth fighting and portrayed Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt as warmongers alongside Adolf Hitler—decided to immerse himself in this mystery, working meticulously through these blacked-out or whited-out passages to puzzle over what might lurk beneath the censor’s markings.

more here.

Adrianne Lenker’s Radical Honesty

Amanda Petrusich at The New Yorker:

In late August, the singer, songwriter, and guitarist Adrianne Lenker stood beside a creek in upstate New York, watching the water move. The day before, Lenker, who is twenty-nine, had packed up the Brooklyn apartment she’d been sharing with two roommates. She was preparing to haul a vintage camping trailer across the country to Topanga Canyon, on the west side of Los Angeles, where her band, Big Thief, was planning to meet up. For the next couple of months, at least, the trailer would be home.

Moving can be disorienting—all that sorting and boxing and tossing out forces a kind of self-reckoning—and for Lenker the experience was only intensified by the ongoing anxiety of the coronavirus pandemic, which made imagining any sort of future feel optimistic, if not naïve. The exhaustion and sorrow of the spring had left everyone feeling precarious. The sun refracted against the surface of the creek until the water turned black. Our conversation drifted toward the Zen idea of impermanence. “Is it too early for this?” Lenker joked. “Nice to meet you—let’s talk about death.”

more here.

US 2020 election: Could the polls be underestimating Donald Trump?

Ben Walker in New Statesman:

We “data people” have all been burnt by polling – and it hurts. In Britain, America and elsewhere, there have been enough high profile “misses” by the industry to give anyone cold feet about relying on polls as the sole metric for how an election might play out. On balance, however, polling has good form for calling most races right – and is becoming increasingly accurate. If this comes as a surprise, it might be because humans often process negative memories (poll misses) more thoroughly than they do positive (accurate polls). Perhaps conscious that history may repeat itself, betting markets are ranking a Trump victory as more likely than what our model and the models of other outlets forecast.

In the US, the antipathy towards polling is heightened because they have a president most polls did not see coming. In 2016, survey data understated Trump’s margin against Hillary Clinton by between 3pts and 6pts in most key battleground states. Some of this miss could be attributed to margin of error, but for polls to have underestimated Trump in a uniform way across different states indicates something else was going on; and, in particular, that the pollsters struggled to correctly quantify insurgent movements.

The question for 2020 is: will it happen again? Polling this time has been much more stable. But intense uncertainty remains about their value and accuracy. Especially when it comes to whether there is a shy Trump vote.

More here.

Wednesday Poem

Why Latin Should Be Taught in High School

Because one day I grew so bored
with Lucretius, I fell in love
with the one object that seemed to be stationary,
the sleeping kid two rows up,
the appealing squalor of his drooping socks.
While the author of De Rerum Natura was making fun
of those who fear the steep way and lose the truth,
I was studying the unruly hairs on Peter Diamond’s right leg.
Titus Lucretius Caro labored, dactyl by dactyl
to convince our Latin IV class of the atomic
composition of smoke and dew,
and I tried to make sense of a boy’s ankles,
the calves’ intriguing
resiliency, the integrity to the shank,
the solid geometry of my classmate’s body.
Light falling through blinds,
a bee flinging itself into a flower,
a seemingly infinite set of texts
to translate and now this particular configuration of atoms
who was given a name at birth,
Peter Diamond, and sat two rows in front of me,
his long arms, his legs that like Lucretius’s hexameters
seemed to go on forever, all this hurly-burly
of matter that had the goodness to settle
long enough to make a body
so fascinating it got me
through fifty-five minutes
of the nature of things.

by Christopher Bursk
The Improbable Swervings of Atoms
the University of Pittsburgh Press

Black Spartacus: The Epic Life of Toussaint Louverture review – superb history of Haiti

Ian Thomson in The Guardian:

On January 1804, the West Indian island of Saint-Domingue became the world’s first black republic. The Africans toiling on the sugar-rich plantations overthrew their French masters and declared independence. The name Saint-Domingue was replaced by the aboriginal Taíno Indian word Haiti (meaning “mountainous land”) and the Haitian flag created when the white band was ceremonially ripped from the French tricolour. Two hundred years on, Haiti’s is the only successful slave revolution in history. It was led by Toussaint Louverture, a Haitian former slave and emblem of slavery’s hoped-for abolition throughout the Americas.

This superb new history of Louverture and his legacy portrays Saint-Domingue as the most profitable slave colony the world had ever known. The glittering prosperity of Nantes and Bordeaux, Marseilles and Dieppe, derived from commerce with the Caribbean island in coffee, indigo, cocoa and cotton; Saint- Domingue’s sugar plantations alone produced more cane than all the British West Indian islands together.

More here.

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

David Byrne Likes Reading Aloud to His Friends

From the New York Times:

What’s the last great book you read?

“The Technology Trap,” by Carl Benedikt Frey, made me look at the industrial revolution, invention, sleeping beauties, contexts and the forces that shape our societies differently. Counter to much conventional wisdom there was plenty of innovation and invention before the industrial revolution — but it seems there was either no need for it or it was actively discouraged by the aristocracy, who saw it as threatening: New inventions that would leave large numbers of peasants unemployed might provoke an uprising.

Techies and economists love to point out that the textile machines the Luddites opposed in the 19th century brought greater prosperity to all — but it took three generations before the benefits kicked in, and there was a lot of pain and suffering in the meantime. And as Frey points out, history is made in the short term.

More here.

Sean Carroll’s Mindscape Podcast: Adam Riess on the Expansion of the Universe and a Crisis in Cosmology

Sean Carroll in Preposterous Universe:

Astronomers rocked the cosmological world with the 1998 discovery that the universe is accelerating. Well-deserved Nobel Prizes were awarded to Saul Perlmutter, Brian Schmidt, and today’s guest Adam Riess. Adam has continued to push forward on investigating the structure and evolution of the universe. He’s been a leader in emphasizing a curious disagreement that threatens to grow into a crisis: incompatible values of the Hubble constant (expansion rate of the universe) obtained from the cosmic microwave background vs. direct measurements. We talk about where this “Hubble tension” comes from, and what it might mean for the universe.

More here.

Slaves to the Asset

Brett Christophers in Labour Hub:

The period since the global financial crisis has seen increased recognition, sparked in particular by the work of Thomas Piketty, that contemporary capitalism is increasingly ‘rentierist’ in nature – dominated by the control of scarce rent-generating assets such as land, infrastructure and digital platforms.

It is also increasingly accepted that the UK is the archetype of such a rentier economy. Having pursued the privatization of public assets further arguably than anywhere else, the country is reaping the consequences in terms of entrenched rentier ascendancy and power.

In most discussions of rentier capitalism, work is conspicuously absent. This is easy to explain. Work, it is said, is what happens in ‘productive’, non-rentier capitalism. Rentiers, by contrast, do not work. Their income is derived not from doing something – working – but exclusively from controlling something – the scarce asset, whatever that asset happens to be. It is in this sense that rentier incomes are said to be ‘unearned’ incomes, in contradistinction to the earned incomes of productive capitalists and those employed by them.

Yet the reality is much less clear-cut.

More here.