‘Silent Spring’ and Other Writings on the Environment

Meehan Crist at the LRB:

There is a belief, particularly prevalent among scientists, that science writing is more or less glorified PR – scientists do the intellectual work of discovery and writers port their findings from lab to public – but Silent Spring is a powerful reminder that great science writing can expand our scientific and cultural imaginations. Rarely has the work of a single author – or, indeed, a single book – had such an immediate and profound impact on society. Silent Spring was the first book to persuade a wide audience of the interconnectedness of all life, ushering in the idea that ‘nature’ refers to ecosystems that include humans. It spurred the passage in the United States of the Clean Air Act (1963), the Wilderness Act (1964), the National Environmental Policy Act (1970), the Clean Water Act (1972) and the Endangered Species Act (1973). Perhaps most significant, it showed how human health and well-being ties in with the health of our environment, leading to the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970. No wonder, then, that writers, activists and scientists concerned about the ongoing destruction of biodiversity and the catastrophic effects of climate change look to Carson with urgent nostalgia.

more here.

Morgan Meis picks his top 10 books of the past 30 years

Morgan Meis in Image:

Truly, the older I get, the older are the books I want to read, and the fewer. I creep further and further back into history. I hide in the murk of lost time.

But enough about me. I did read a few books published in the last thirty years. Most of them bored me to tears. A few, however, were so odd or stupid or, here and there, brilliant that I had to take notice. I was not able to dismiss them, as I would probably have preferred to do. Below, in no particular order, are some of the books that have stuck in my head.

Jacques Rancière, Aisthesis: Scenes from the Aesthetic Regime of Art (2011)

This book is 272 pages in the English translation put out by Verso. The flap proclaims, “This incisive study provides a history of aesthetic modernity far removed from conventional understandings of modernism.” I notice that my bookmark is stuck at page eleven. You could say that I have no business discussing a book of almost three hundred pages when I read less than eleven pages. This is fair, though I should note that the preface is a few pages long and counted separately, in Roman numerals. Nevertheless, those first eleven pages (plus preface) were so torturous that I couldn’t go on. This is significant in itself since I have always been something of a literary masochist. Once I’ve committed to a book, I’m generally in for the long haul, regardless of the pain… nay, even perhaps partly because of the pain.

More here.

Cookshops of the Future

Yohann Koshy in The Baffler:

TWO YEARS AGO, at a panel discussion held in a crowded theater in Brighton, England, on the fringe of the Labour Party’s annual conference, two thinkers were debating the way out of capitalism. Paul Mason, the journalist and author of Postcapitalism, relayed his book’s thesis: information technology, as seen in digital files that cost nothing to reproduce, “cheapens real things so rapidly that it disrupts capitalism’s normal mechanisms of adaptation and survival,” thus undermining the system from within. David Harvey, the scholar of Marx’s Capital, disagreed:

Every time a new wave of technology comes along, it does indeed seem to suggest some beautiful new future that can be constructed out of it. . . . the answer is, “well, it could be,” but it’s not going to be because the capitalist social relations are dominant . . . they are going to make sure that these new technologies get used to squeeze value out of labor.

It wasn’t exactly the Rumble in the Jungle, but the exchange illustrated two deeply different approaches to post-capitalist strategy: one places its emphasis on technology to light the way, the other on the dynamics of class struggle. Moderating the discussion was Aaron Bastani, co-founder of Novara Media, an outfit that emerged out of the 2010-2011 UK student movement and which has been plugging the gap in Britain’s discursive ecosystem for complex and accessible thinking from the left. Bastani’s first book, Fully Automated Luxury Communism, is something of a bridge between Mason and Harvey, fusing a futurological account of the emancipatory potential of digital technology with a “political project of collective solidarity and individual happiness.” If successful, Bastani argues, the endpoint will be a society “as distinct from our own as that of the twentieth century to feudalism.”

Fully. Automated. Luxury. Communism. It sounds like the future. Or, rather, how the future used to sound, when children read magazines about holidays on the moon. Popularized by Bastani in a 2014 video, the pitch is simple: post-2008 capitalism is in a secular crisis, sustained by an unprecedented amount of cheap money from central banks; automation, now paired with the cognitive capacities of artificial intelligence, is eating away at working and middle-class jobs; this renders a new account of a post-capitalist and post-work society necessary.

More here.

The Distance Between Us: Why we act badly when we don’t speak face-to-face

Micah Meadowcroft in The New Atlantis:

Instagram launched in 2010, some hundred and twenty years after Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. The slender novel is a fable of a new Narcissus, of a beautiful young man whose portrait ages and conforms to the life he has lived while his body does not. Dorian Gray, awakened to the magnificence and fleetingness of his own youth by an aesthete’s words and the glory of his picture, breathes a murmured prayer that his soul might be exchanged for a visage and body never older than that singular summer day they were portrayed. By an unknown magic his prayer is answered, and the accidents of his flesh are somehow severed from his essence so that he may live as he likes, physically untouched and unchanged. But this division of body and soul leads Dorian to ethical dissolution. For by the fixed innocence of his appearance, the link between action and consequence is severed.

We run the risk of ethical dissolution, too, for although we cannot sever our essences from our appearances, we can indeed create a distance between them. For this we do not need Dorian Gray’s incantation. We have the witchcraft of social media to answer our own prayers — prayers that we might seem to be whatever self we wish to represent, the truth of ourselves hidden away. These mediating social sites and screens dissociate us inwardly, detaching the self from a performed image. And they dissociate us outwardly, detaching us from others by eliminating physical proximity — allowing us to forget others’ humanity, to remove ourselves from the shared scene in which we are all ethical actors.

More here.

Wednesday Poem


the man who climbed the Brooklyn Bridge
who walked the highest cables
and swung hand-over-hand from one side
to the other   who eluded ten cops with harnesses
and ropes   a helicopter   a boat below
with emergency crews and a backboard
who asked for a cigarette and a beer   who swung
upside down with his knees hooked
around a cable and took a cigarette
from one cop’s hand and smoked it laughing
and then flipped over and slid down fireman-style
one cable and upside down again around another
and skirted between the outstretched hands of two cops
and again   and then again
who after two hours of this
with a crowd gathered on the pedestrian walkway
of the Manhattan Bridge and traffic stopped
in both directions on the Brooklyn Bridge
with all of us looking up from the Fulton Ferry landing
where Whitman wrote about us the generations hence
but probably couldn’t have imagined
the cell phones and laptops   all the exposed skin
and his words themselves cut out of the metal railing
between the defunct ferry landing and East River

who finally gave up   gave over
to the embrace of one big-shouldered cop
and hugged him hard for a long time
as we started our applause from down below

was not an acrobat   or a bridge worker
or a thrill-seeker
as many of us with our feet on the ground believed
including one gnarled hardhat who said
if he ain’t one of ours let’s sign him up
but a “simple welder” the paper the next day said
who according to his mother did very well
at gymnastics in high school

whose bloody hands stained the cop’s shirt
said when asked why he did what he did
I have issues

while we with issues but perhaps not issues enough
to become suddenly the best show in town
however briefly   clapped and clapped
as if we wanted our hands bloodied like his
as the helicopter whisked itself away
and the backboard went back into the ambulance
and the boat slid under the bridge and out of sight

we clapped and clapped and then stopped clapping
and returned to our morning
and our ever so many mornings hence.

by Denver Butson
from illegible address
Luquer Street Press, 2004.

June 4, 2019

Crossing the Wine-Dark Sea: In search of the places that inspired the Iliad

Caroline Alexander in The American Scholar:

The Spercheios river—which, legend tells us, was dear to the warrior Achilles—marks the southern boundary of the great Thessalian plain in central Greece. I arrived there in late October, but it still felt like summer, and few people were around. Away on the left, the foothills of Mount Oiti were hazed with heat. On my right, at some distance from the road, screened by cotton fields and intermittent olive groves, flowed the Spercheios. At the village of Paliourio, road and river converged, and leaving my car, I wandered down a track that led to a shattered bridge shored with makeshift planking. The river itself was sparkling, picturesquely overhung with oak and wild olive, but on closer inspection I saw machinery and discarded appliances rusting in its shallows.

It is this river, as Homer tells us in Book 23 of the Iliad, that Achilles recalls as he stands grieving by the funeral pyre of his slain companion, Patroclus:

Then swift-footed godlike Achilles thought of yet one more thing;
standing away from the pyre he cut his tawny hair,
which he was growing luxuriant and long for the river Spercheios,
and troubled he then spoke, looking out to sea as dark as wine:
“Spercheios, in vain did my father Peleus vow to you
that returning there to my beloved fatherland I
would cut and dedicate my hair to you.”

I was on a quest that I had long wanted to make, following the journey of the Iliad—or, more specifically, following the route taken by the pre-Homeric Greek poets who carried the oral tradition that would become the Iliad out of Thessaly and Greece, eastward to new people in new lands.

More here.  [Thanks to Jennifer Ouellette.]

Decades of early research on the genetics of depression were built on nonexistent foundations. How did that happen?

Ed Yong in The Atlantic:

In 1996, a group of European researchers found that a certain gene, called SLC6A4, might influence a person’s risk of depression.

It was a blockbuster discovery at the time. The team found that a less active version of the gene was more common among 454 people who had mood disorders than in 570 who did not. In theory, anyone who had this particular gene variant could be at higher risk for depression, and that finding, they said, might help in diagnosing such disorders, assessing suicidal behavior, or even predicting a person’s response to antidepressants.

Back then, tools for sequencing DNA weren’t as cheap or powerful as they are today. When researchers wanted to work out which genes might affect a disease or trait, they made educated guesses, and picked likely “candidate genes.” For depression, SLC6A4 seemed like a great candidate: It’s responsible for getting a chemical called serotonin into brain cells, and serotonin had already been linked to mood and depression. Over two decades, this one gene inspired at least 450 research papers.

But a new study—the biggest and most comprehensive of its kind yet—shows that this seemingly sturdy mountain of research is actually a house of cards, built on nonexistent foundations.

More here.

Epistemic Learned Helplessness

Scott Alexander in Slate Star Codex:

A friend recently complained about how many people lack the basic skill of believing arguments. That is, if you have a valid argument for something, then you should accept the conclusion. Even if the conclusion is unpopular, or inconvenient, or you don’t like it. He envisioned an art of rationality that would make people believe something after it had been proven to them.

And I nodded my head, because it sounded reasonable enough, and it wasn’t until a few hours later that I thought about it again and went “Wait, no, that would be a terrible idea.”

I don’t think I’m overselling myself too much to expect that I could argue circles around the average uneducated person. Like I mean that on most topics, I could demolish their position and make them look like an idiot. Reduce them to some form of “Look, everything you say fits together and I can’t explain why you’re wrong, I just know you are!” Or, more plausibly, “Shut up I don’t want to talk about this!”

And there are people who can argue circles around me. Maybe not on every topic, but on topics where they are experts and have spent their whole lives honing their arguments. When I was young I used to read pseudohistory books; Immanuel Velikovsky’s Ages in Chaos is a good example of the best this genre has to offer. I read it and it seemed so obviously correct, so perfect, that I could barely bring myself to bother to search out rebuttals.

And then I read the rebuttals, and they were so obviously correct, so devastating, that I couldn’t believe I had ever been so dumb as to believe Velikovsky.

More here.

Painting in Color in the 1960s

Karen Wilkin at The New Criterion:

The show’s subtitle, “Painting in Color in the 1960s,” can raise expectations of an emphasis on what Clement Greenberg called “post-painterly abstraction” in 1964, when he organized an exhibition with that title for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; I’ve even heard “Spilling Over” described as “the Color Field show.” (“Post-painterly,” of course, is a nod at the Swiss art historian Heinrich Wölfflin’s classification of “painterly” painting—the broad brushwork and softly modeled forms of the Venetian Renaissance, for example, as opposed to Florentine clarity and crisp drawing. Greenberg updated “painterly” to refer to the loose, layered paint application of gestural Abstract Expressionism, which he referred to derisively as “the Tenth Street touch.”) “Post-Painterly Abstraction” surveyed a new generation of painters who challenged Ab Ex’s tonal modulations and heightened emotionalism—synonymous with serious painting for more than a decade—with thin, radiant expanses of clear intense hues. Later termed Color Field painters, the “post-painterly” artists made color the main carrier of meaning in their pictures and substituted a kind of cool detachment for overt drama.

more here.

Philippe Petit, Artist of Life

Paul Auster at The Paris Review:

Why did he do it, then? For no other reason, I believe, than to dazzle the world with what he could do. Having seen his stark and haunting juggling performance on the street, I sensed intuitively that his motives were not those of other men—not even those of other artists. With an ambition and an arrogance fit to the measure of the sky, and placing on himself the most stringent internal demands, he wanted, simply, to do what he was capable of doing.

After living in France for four years, I returned to New York in July 1974. For a long time I had heard nothing about Philippe Petit, but the memory of what had happened in Paris was still fresh, a permanent part of my inner mythology. Then, just one month after my return, Philippe was in the news again—this time in New York, with his now-famous walk between the towers of the World Trade Center. It was good to know that Philippe was still dreaming his dreams, and it made me feel that I had chosen the right moment to come home.

more here.

Coleridge, the Wordsworths and Their Year of Marvels

Nicholas Roe at Literary Review:

Like most of their generation, Coleridge and Wordsworth had embraced the French Revolution and its ideals of liberty and equality, then lived through the shattering reversals of massacre and war that ensued. By the mid-1790s, many of the poets’ acquaintances were racked by mental and emotional stress. Some of them fled the country; others opted for internal exile, hidden, they hoped, from the spies and informers patrolling the cities. Nicolson argues convincingly that the fragmentary, fierce and strange poetry Wordsworth produced before Lyrical Ballads was composed on the cusp of madness. It was only by going to ground in England’s West Country that Wordsworth was able to cope. We get a rare glimpse of him at that time in Dorothy Wordsworth’s remark that her brother is ‘dextrous with a spade’. Like Heaney, Nicolson’s young Romantics are energised by ‘touching territory’ – digging in to renew themselves and their writing. The idea, Nicolson suggests, ‘that the contented life was the earth-connected life, even that goodness was embeddedness … had its roots in the 1790s’. As furze bloomed brightly on Longstone Hill, Coleridge and Wordsworth began to write poems that would challenge ‘pre-established codes’, change how people thought and so remake the world.

more here.

Could boosting the gut microbiome be the secret to healthier older age?

From Phys.Org:

Faecal transplants from young to aged mice can stimulate the gut microbiome and revive the gut immune system, a study by immunologists at the Babraham Institute, Cambridge, has shown. The research is published in the journal Nature Communications today. The gut is one of the organs that is most severely affected by ageing and age-dependent changes to the human  have been linked to increased frailty, inflammation and increased susceptibility to intestinal disorders. These age-dependent changes to the gut microbiome happen in parallel with a decrease in function of the gut  but, until now, it was unknown whether the two changes were linked.

“Our gut microbiomes are made up of hundreds of different types of bacteria and these are essential to our health, playing a role in our metabolism,  and immune response,” explains lead researcher Dr. Marisa Stebegg. “Our immune system is constantly interacting with the bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract. As immunologists who study why our immune system doesn’t work as well as we age, we were interested to explore whether the make-up of the gut microbiome might influence the strength of the gut immune response.”

Co-housing young and aged mice (mice naturally like to sample the faecal pellets of other mice!) or more directly performing faecal transfer from young to aged mice boosted the gut immune system in the aged mice, partly correcting the age-related decline. “To our surprise, co-housing rescued the reduced gut immune response in aged mice. Looking at the numbers of the immune cells involved, the aged mice possessed gut immune responses that were almost indistinguishable from those of the younger mice.” commented Dr. Michelle Linterman,  in the Immunology programme at the Babraham Institute. The results show that the poor gut  is not irreversible and that the response can be strengthened by challenging with appropriate stimuli, essentially turning back the clock on the gut immune system to more closely resemble the situation in a young mouse.

More here.

Tuesday Poem

Untitled [Executions have always been public spectacles]

Executions have always been public spectacles. It is New Year’s
2009 in Austin and we are listening to Jaguares on the speakers.
Alexa doesn’t exist yet so we cannot ask her any questions. It is
nearly 3 AM, and we run out of champagne. At Fruitvale Station,
a man on his way home on a train falls onto the platform, hands
cuffed. Witnesses capture the assassination with a grainy video on
a cell phone. I am too drunk, too in love, to react when I hear the
news. I do not have Twitter to search for the truth. Rancière said
looking is not the same as knowing. I watch protests on the
television while I sit motionless in the apartment, long after she
left me. Are we what he calls the emancipated spectator, in which
spectatorship is “not passivity that’s turned into activity” but,
instead, “our normal situation”? Police see their god in their
batons, map stains and welts on the continents of bodies. To beat
a body attempts to own it. And when the body cannot be owned,
it must be extinguished.

by Mónica Teresa Ortiz
from the Academy of American Poets.

June 3, 2019

Nature and Norms: A review of Lorraine Daston’s ‘Against Nature’

by Emrys Westacott

The relation between what is natural and what is morally good is a topic that has concerned philosophers from ancient times to the present. Those who view the part of a human being that belongs to the material world as sordid, unclean, and irrational have understood morality to require the suppression or the taming of nature; the angel in us must control the beast. This outlook is endorsed by Plato and is commonly found in Christian theology. Hobbes’ social contract theory, which presents moral life and political order as the way we escape the miseries of the state of nature, also takes morality and nature to be in certain respects opposed. Many others, though, have looked to nature for some sort of moral guidance. The Stoics viewed the implacable order observed in the heavens as a model for a serene human life. Defenders of rigid social hierarchies pointed to the successful arrangements in a bee hive. Critics of homosexuality argue that it is “unnatural,” while advocates of gay rights deny this. Appeals to what one finds in nature have bolstered social Darwinism, the subordination of women, arguments for and against slavery, egalitarianism, and the idea of universal human rights.

In Against Nature, Lorraine Daston (Director of Berlin’s Max Planck Institute for the History of Science), poses the following question: “Why do human beings, in many different cultures and epochs, pervasively and persistently, look to nature as a source of norms for human conduct?”[1]The book belongs to the Untimely Meditation series published by MIT Press. At seventy pages, nine of which are taken up by illustrations, and four of which are blank, the book is essentially an 18,000 word essay on this topic.

The modern view of nature that emerged and took hold during the scientific revolution is that it contains no values. In the thought of intellectual pioneers like Descartes and Boyle, the material world is best understood as a vast machine operating predictably according to universal laws of nature. The implications of this outlook for ethics were first noticed by Hume when he observed that there is a logical difference between “is” statements that describe facts, and “ought” statements that express values; moreover, because of this logical difference, it is impossible to fully justify the latter by appealing to the former. Descriptions, by themselves, never logically entail prescriptions. Since then, the “fact-value gap” has haunted much moral philosophy. But even though John Stuart Mill and others have warned against using nature as a moral guide–think preying mantis and sexual relations–according to Daston, “the temptation to extract norms from nature seems to be enduring and irresistible.”[2] Read more »

Let The Anti-Vaxxers Have Their Way

by Thomas R. Wells

The authority of scientific experts is in decline. This is unfortunate since experts – by definition – are those with the best understanding of how the world works, what is likely to happen next, and how we can change that for the best. Human civilisation depends upon an intellectual division of labour for our continued prosperity, and also to head off existential problems like epidemics and climate change. The fewer people believe scientists’ pronouncements, the more danger we are all in.

Fortunately I think there is a solution for this problem. Unfortunately, it looks like some people are going to have to die. Read more »

The Inaugural Dress

by Samia Altaf

Last night I dreamed I was on my way to the tailor’s in the H-Block market to pick up the outfit that Mrs. Obama was to wear at President Obama’s second inauguration. The State Department official who was to transport it in the diplomatic pouch was on the tarmac waiting in the military plane with its engines revving. Everything was set.

But real life is unpredictable and the best laid plans of mice and men, and women too, can get derailed. As I skirted the roundabout to go north, traffic stalled in the circle of Lalikjan Chowk. A crowd of bearded and turbaned men, their trouser-ends hoisted above the ankles, was milling around, waving their arms and shouting, their teeth gleaming white through their black beards. Some energetic ones, skinny and intense, also with black floating beards, were rerouting the traffic advising the cars to turn back. That I could not afford to do. This was a mission-critical errand—the first lady was to wear the outfit in the morning and it was already night in Washington, D.C. All I had was the ten-hour time difference in Lahore.

I figured it was a religious demonstration, one faction of Muslims upset at another’s manner of dressing or eating or laughing or standing. Then I saw saw women and children holding placards protesting power failures and the increased cost of the whatever little electric supply that came their way for couple of hours in the day. Keep your focus I told myself, circling around, zigzagging through the utility shops on the left of the roundabout, past the back wall of the S-Block graveyard, navigating the Z-Block bylanes across from the padlocked library, lurching over the empty lot behind the big mosque to finally arrive at the complex housing the tailoring shop. Read more »