‘The Unthinkable Has Happened’: You learn to believe in your child’s existence. What happens when she’s killed by a piece of your daily environment?

Jayson Greene in Vulture:

We left our E-Z Pass in the apartment. Stacy and I realize this only upon arriving at the mouth of the tunnel en route to the Weill Cornell ER. The gate fails to lift as we approach and we almost plow through it. The man at the tollbooth tries to reckon with us, incoherent and hysterical and blocking traffic.

“Our daughter’s been in a serious accident,” Stacy yells to him.

He peers behind us at the empty car seat, confused. “Where is she?” he demands.

“She’s with my mother!” Stacy says. Cars honk as the pressure of the line builds behind us.

“Please, she is in the hospital,” I interject. “Please just let us go.”

He waves us on. “Just don’t get in an accident!” he calls into our window as the bar lifts.

More here.  [Thanks to Jennifer Ouellette.]

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Researchers Rethink the Ancestry of Complex Cells

Christie Wilcox in Quanta:

Our planet formed a little over 4.5 billion years ago, and if the most recent estimates are correct, it wasn’t long before life arose. Not much is known about how that happened because it’s maddeningly difficult to investigate. It’s also proved tough to study what happened next, during the first billions of years of evolution that followed, when the main domains of life emerged.

A particularly vexing mystery is the rise of the eukaryotes, cells with well-defined internal compartments, or organelles, which are present only in animals, plants, fungi and some microbes like protists — our evolutionary kin. The earliest eukaryotes left no clear fossils as clues, so researchers are forced to deduce what they were like by comparing the structural and molecular details of later ones and inferring their evolutionary relationships.

Right now is “an incredibly exciting time” for such research, said Michelle Leger, a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute of Evolutionary Biology in Barcelona, Spain. With modern genetic sequencing technologies, scientists can read the entire genomes of diverse life forms, and as microbial life is revealed in ever-increasing detail, new species and other taxonomic groups are coming to light. With that wealth of data, researchers are tracing lineages of organisms backward through time.

More here.

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How Gay Rights Activists Changed The Minds Of Their Opponents

Shankar Vedantam, Parth Shah, Tara Boyle, and Jennifer Schmidt at NPR:

“This is actually one of the most surprising things in the whole history of public opinion,” says Stanford sociologist Michael Rosenfeld. “There’s more and more rapid change in attitudes towards gay rights in the past thirty years in the United States than there ever has been in recorded attitudes in the United States on any issue.”

Public opinion rarely shifts on contested issues. Given the long history of discrimination against gays in the United States and abroad, this change has social scientists scratching their chins.

More here.

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April 11, 2019

This Is How Human Extinction Could Play Out

Bill McKibben in Rolling Stone:

The stubs of corn stalks that were chopped down because heat and lack of rain ruined the crop, litter a field in Nebraska. 2012 saw the highest recorded temperatures in American history. Over the summer most of the mid-west experienced a tremendous drought, where hot weather and the lack of rain destroyed crops and grazing land. In the high plains of Western Nebraska’s cattle lands, this created ideal conditions for wild fires, which spread across the land sparked by single bolts of lightning. (Photo by Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images)

Oh, it could get very bad.

In 2015, a study in the Journal of Mathematical Biology pointed out that if the world’s oceans kept warming, by 2100 they might become hot enough to “stop oxygen production by phyto-plankton by disrupting the process of photosynthesis.” Given that two-thirds of the Earth’s oxygen comes from phytoplankton, that would “likely result in the mass mortality of animals and humans.”

A year later, above the Arctic Circle, in Siberia, a heat wave thawed a reindeer carcass that had been trapped in the permafrost. The exposed body released anthrax into nearby water and soil, infecting two thousand reindeer grazing nearby, and they in turn infected some humans; a twelve-year-old boy died. As it turns out, permafrost is a “very good preserver of microbes and viruses, because it is cold, there is no oxygen, and it is dark” — scientists have managed to revive an eight-million-year-old bacterium they found beneath the surface of a glacier. Researchers believe there are fragments of the Spanish flu virus, smallpox, and bubonic plague buried in Siberia and Alaska.

Or consider this: as ice sheets melt, they take weight off land, and that can trigger earthquakes — seismic activity is already increasing in Greenland and Alaska. Meanwhile, the added weight of the new seawater starts to bend the Earth’s crust.

More here.

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FAQ with details of all you need to know about the monster black hole in the M87 galaxy, the giant Event Horizon Telescope and why scientists are looking for pictures of black holes

Niruj Mohan Ramanujam in The Wire:

What has the Event Horizon Telescope actually seen?

The Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) has imaged the silhouette – or shadow – of the black hole at the centre of the M87 galaxy. To create this image, astronomers combined data from eight different telescopes across the world in an observation run conducted in April 2017. The data in question was electromagnetic signals with a frequency of 230 GHz, or a corresponding wavelength of 1.3 mm. Using this, astronomers formed the image of a black hole for the first time.

The event horizon of a black hole is the ultimate boundary. Nothing from inside it can escape to the outside. The ring of fire in the EHT image is light from the gas falling into the event horizon, and its shadow is the dark hole in the centre. The exact shape of the ring is due to the way the incredible gravity of the black hole bends the light around it, and the extreme speed at which the gas is falling in. The ring is not seen to be uniformly bright because these numbers are uneven.

More here.

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How Race Made the Opioid Crisis

Donna Murch in the Boston Review:

Since the late 1990s, yearly rates of overdose deaths from legal “white market” opioids have consistently exceeded those from heroin. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, between 1999 and 2017, opioid overdoses killed nearly 400,000 people with 68 percent of those deaths linked to prescription medications. Moreover, as regulators and drug companies tightened controls on diversion and misuse after 2010, the American Society of Addiction Medicine determined that at least 80 percent of “new heroin users started out misusing prescription pain killers.” Some data sets point to even higher numbers. In response to a 2014 survey of people undergoing treatments for opioid addiction, 94 percent of people surveyed said that they turned to heroin because prescription opioids were “far more expensive and harder to obtain.”

In the face of these statistics, the claim that the opioid crisis is the product of Mexican and Central American migration—rather than the deregulation of Big Pharma and the failures of a private health care system—is not only absurd, but insidious.

More here.

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Trying to Understand Native American Art

Robert Rubsam at Commonweal:

Almost nothing in this exhibition was created for aesthetic admiration alone. Whether it’s the way a Diné blanket’s lines break into daring geometric forms when placed across a person’s shoulders, or the transformation that a mask undergoes during a ritual, the full beauty of these objects has to be activated by the people who use them. One wishes those people were present. The more time one spends looking at the works on display at the Met, the more one suspects that they could only ever be seen as they are meant to be seen when used as they were meant to be used. Placed behind glass under the banner of “art,” they look abandoned.

Perhaps this is unavoidable. But surely it is not too much to ask that such objects always be presented with an account of the stories and activities that gave them their original meaning. Early in the exhibition one comes across a true masterpiece, a dagger whose handle is adorned with a shaman’s owl-eyed face, his trance state beaten onto the thin metal.

more here.

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Eric Hobsbawm: A Life in History

Susan Pedersen at the LRB:

Was Eric Hobsbawm interested in himself? Not, I think, so very much. He had a more than healthy ego and enough self-knowledge to admit it, but all his curiosity was turned outward – towards problems, politics, literatures, languages, landscapes. Never without a book, whether bound for a tutorial or the local A&E, for decades he disappeared off for tramping holidays or conferences anywhere from Catalonia to Cuba the moment term ended. One friend, on holiday in southern Italy in 1957, saw two men in a field and said to her husband: ‘But look, it’s Eric!’ And, she recalled, ‘it really was Eric, with a peasant. He was interviewing the peasant.’

Untrammelled curiosity is an excellent quality in a historian – none better – but it has to be turned inward if one attempts autobiography. At the insistence of his friends, publisher and agent, Hobsbawm did write an autobiography, but Interesting Times, published in 2002, when he was 85, is almost comically unrevealing.

more here.

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Avicenna: The Leading Sage

Peter Adamson at the TLS:

Nowadays, not many philosophers are prominent enough to get nicknames. In medieval times the practice was more popular. Every scholastic worth their salt had one: Bonaventure was the “seraphic doctor”, Aquinas the “angelic doctor”, Duns Scotus the “subtle doctor”, and so on. In the Islamic world, too, outstanding thinkers were honoured with such titles. Of these, none was more appropriate than al-shaykh al-raʾīs, which one might loosely translate as “the leading sage”. It was bestowed on Abū ʿAlī Ibn Sīnā (d.1037 AD), who was known to all those medieval scholastics by the Latinized name “Avicenna”. And not just known, but renowned. Avicenna is one of the few philosophers to have become a major influence on the development of a completely foreign philosophical culture. Once his works were translated into Latin he became second only to Aristotle as an inspiration for thirteenth-century medieval philosophy, and (thanks to his definitive medical summary the Canon, in Arabic Qānūn) second only to Galen as a source for medical knowledge in Europe.

more here.

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Thursday Poem

Song

—A poem composed in 28 A.D. Korea

When my dead mother comes to me
and asks me to lend her my shoes
I take off my shoes.

When my dead mother comes to me
and asks me to hold her up, for she has no feet
I take off my feet.

When my dead mother comes to me
and asks me to lend her, lend her
I even rip out my heart.

In the sky, mountains rise, trails rise.
At a place where there is no one
two round moons ascend.
.
translated from Korean by Don Mee Choi
from Arts & Letters, Fall 2000

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Machines Like Me – intelligent mischief

Marcel Theroux in The Guardian:

By a strange twist of fate, I read this book while on a visit to the Falkland Islands, where the British victory over Argentina in the 1982 war feels as though it might have happened last week. Outside Port Stanley, on treeless uplands whose names ring distant bells – Goose Green, Mount Harriet, Tumbledown – the conflict is still unofficially memorialised by chunks of crashed war planes and the wires of field telephones from a pre-digital age. Machines Like Me, Ian McEwan’s new novel, also turns in part on the Falklands conflict, eternalising a version of that year’s events, though in the book’s fictional world things have turned out rather differently.

In the 1982 of the novel, the British navy sails from Portsmouth with calamitous results. A devastating Argentinian attack ends the war abruptly and the Falklands become Las Malvinas. The humiliation of defeat forces Margaret Thatcher from office, brings a very different politician to power, and triggers the country’s unexpected departure from Europe. This political and social upheaval feels like both reminiscence and prophecy. The counterfactual 1982 of the novel plays variations on our historical record and contains clear allusions to the present. “Only the Third Reich and other tyrannies decided policies by plebiscites and generally no good came from them,” the narrator reminds the inhabitants of post-referendum Britain.

Machines Like Me belongs to the genre of speculative fiction, but in its narrow focus on morally ambiguous characters in a bleak cityscape it also owes a debt to film noir, sharing noir’s conviction that nothing is more human than moral inconsistency.

More here.

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Unknown human relative discovered in Philippine cave

Nic Fleming in Nature:

The human family tree has grown another branch, after researchers unearthed remains of a previously unknown hominin species from a cave in the Philippines. They have named the new species, which was probably small-bodied, Homo luzonensis. The discovery, reported in Nature on 10 April1, is likely to reignite debates over when ancient human relatives first left Africa. And the age of the remains — possibly as young as 50,000 years old — suggests that several different human species once co-existed across southeast Asia. The first traces of the new species turned up more than a decade ago, when researchers reported the discovery of a foot bone dating to at least 67,000 years old in Callao Cave on the island of Luzon, in the Philippines2. The researchers were unsure which species the bone was from, but they reported that it resembled that of a small Homo sapiens.

Further excavations of Callao Cave uncovered a thigh bone, seven teeth, two foot bones and two hand bones — with features unlike those of other human relatives, contends the team, co-led by Florent Détroit, a palaeoanthropologist at the National Museum of Natural History in Paris. The remains come from at least two adults and one child. “Together, they create a strong argument that this is something new,” says Matthew Tocheri, a palaeoanthropologist at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Canada.

More here.

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April 10, 2019

Thomas J. Sugrue On History’s Hard Lessons

Destin Jenkins in Public Books:

Destin Jenkins (DJ): How did you initially approach the story of postwar Detroit?

Thomas J. Sugrue (TJS): I began as an economic determinist. That is, I wanted to write about work and housing, but I hypothesized that work, labor, and industry were the driving factors in the transformation of Detroit and other cities like it. Housing and the city’s neighborhood racial politics would follow. When I began doing my research, it very quickly became clear to me that drawing an artificial line between race and class or between work and neighborhood made no sense. The two needed to be understood as mutually constitutive. To pull them apart would do injustice to the way the political economy worked in post–World War II America.

I would consider myself a historian of capitalism before the field was named. When I looked to Detroit, I saw a racialized economy of work and investment, as well as a racialized economy of home finance, of property ownership, and of land ownership. The story of post–World War II cities is one of racial capitalism, or racialized capitalism.

DJ: Can you give us an example of how race and class are intertwined, and of how that interconnection shapes and is shaped by capitalism?

TJS: I began thinking mainly in terms of class. Deindustrialization and disinvestment had devastating consequences for workers, regardless of their race or ethnicity.

More here.

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A young paleontologist may have discovered a record of the most significant event in the history of life on Earth

Douglas Preston in The New Yorker:

If, on a certain evening about sixty-­six million years ago, you had stood somewhere in North America and looked up at the sky, you would have soon made out what appeared to be a star. If you watched for an hour or two, the star would have seemed to grow in brightness, although it barely moved. That’s because it was not a star but an asteroid, and it was headed directly for Earth at about forty-five thousand miles an hour. Sixty hours later, the asteroid hit. The air in front was compressed and violently heated, and it blasted a hole through the atmosphere, generating a supersonic shock wave. The asteroid struck a shallow sea where the Yucatán peninsula is today. In that moment, the Cretaceous period ended and the Paleogene period began.

A few years ago, scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory used what was then one of the world’s most powerful computers, the so-called Q Machine, to model the effects of the impact. The result was a slow-motion, second-by-second false-color video of the event. Within two minutes of slamming into Earth, the asteroid, which was at least six miles wide, had gouged a crater about eighteen miles deep and lofted twenty-five trillion metric tons of debris into the atmosphere. Picture the splash of a pebble falling into pond water, but on a planetary scale. When Earth’s crust rebounded, a peak higher than Mt. Everest briefly rose up. The energy released was more than that of a billion Hiroshima bombs, but the blast looked nothing like a nuclear explosion, with its signature mushroom cloud. Instead, the initial blowout formed a “rooster tail,” a gigantic jet of molten material, which exited the atmosphere, some of it fanning out over North America. Much of the material was several times hotter than the surface of the sun, and it set fire to everything within a thousand miles. In addition, an inverted cone of liquefied, superheated rock rose, spread outward as countless red-hot blobs of glass, called tektites, and blanketed the Western Hemisphere.

More here.

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Black Hole Picture Revealed for the First Time

Dennis Overbye in the New York Times:

Astronomers announced on Wednesday that at last they had seen the unseeable: a black hole, a cosmic abyss so deep and dense that not even light can escape it.

“We’ve exposed a part of our universe we’ve never seen before,” said Shep Doeleman, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, and director of the effort to capture the image, during a Wednesday news conference in Washington, D.C.

The image, of a lopsided ring of light surrounding a dark circle deep in the heart of the galaxy known as Messier 87, some 55 million light-years away from here, resembled the Eye of Sauron, a reminder yet again of the power and malevolence of nature. It is a smoke ring framing a one-way portal to eternity.

To capture the image, astronomers reached across intergalactic space to a giant galaxy known as Messier 87, in the constellation Virgo. There, a black hole about seven billion times more massive than the sun is unleashing a violent jet of energy some 5,000 light years into space.

More here.

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A Betrayal by The Intellectuals

Chris Hann at Eurozine:

When things fall apart, it is not surprising that people cling to forces they associate with an earlier age of stability. The voters of Kiskunhalas sent a socialist to the Budapest parliament in 1994 and elected the same individual to be their mayor from 2002 to 2010. He was formerly a communist and a director at the State Farm, yet some claim that he did more to help small businessmen than his Free Democrat predecessor. According to Ferenc he did not do enough, for example in the way of reducing the local tax burden. No post-Socialist mayor has so far been able to attract any large-scale external investment to the town. Disaster struck in 2008 when Lévi-Strauss decided to close its factory and relocate to Romania, where costs were apparently significantly lower. Almost 500 jobs were lost at short notice.

While the surrounding countryside was solidly behind Fidesz by 2010, their mayoral candidate in Kiskunhalas was unpopular and lost to an independent. In 2014 this ‘anomaly’ was corrected with the election of a new Fidesz mayor in his mid-thirties, the scion of a local family with business interests.

more here.

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Is The Mobility Revolution Almost Here?

Daniel Albert at n+1:

Peak Car offers a compelling story of vast riches and better living. Yet the evidence is thin. The rate at which young people get their licenses has indeed been falling, but the trend began in 1983, when the internet was still a science experiment. Today, the three best-selling vehicles in the US by far are pickup trucks. Most of those trucks are used as personal vehicles, as their pristine empty beds make clear. Whatever madness causes Americans to drive empty-bedded trucks around is not something Uber or Lyft can cure. And for those of us in the suburbs, minivans and three-row SUVs are more than transportation. They are waiting rooms, warm cabins on a cold day, and a place to leave the squash racket so we don’t forget it every week. It may be possible to find a Lyft big enough to carry the soccer team, but piling in with muddy cleats and leaving behind lost balls will earn you the dreaded one-star rating. Do it regularly and you’ll get you banned from the app.

more here.

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Gazing at the Moon

Alan Hollinghurst at Literary Review:

‘At last!’ was my first reaction to this book: at last a scholarly treatment of a subject I’ve been noticing, pondering and mentally anthologising for much of my life. It’s partly a gay thing, no doubt, to clock the backside of a marble Jason or painted gondolier, surfaces and volumes that polite analysis seems not to register, and to speculate about those artists seemingly fixated by them. In his diary in 1907 E M Forster jotted down a list of names suggesting a sort of gay lineage – Pater, Whitman, Housman – and added ‘Luca Signorelli?’ I assume he had seen his frescoes in Orvieto Cathedral, in which the naked male backside is a pivotal feature, and jumped to his own conclusions.

In Seen from Behind, Patricia Lee Rubin pays much attention to Signorelli and is no doubt properly circumspect about outing him: sexual mentalities in 1500 are not to be crudely submitted to 21st-century models. But then, if Signorelli wasn’t in some sense gay, what did his focus on the male backside mean, to him and to his contemporaries?

more here.

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