Later On

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Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

What drives cultural evolution

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Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny, by Robert Wright. A big-picture take on what drives evolution of both memes and lifeforms. Wright’s idea is ingenious and seems extremely well supported with clear arguments—as one would expect after reading his book The Evolution of God.

It’s a fascinating book. I use that word a lot—perhaps I am easily fascinated, but give this one a try.

Written by LeisureGuy

19 November 2018 at 2:46 pm

Posted in Books, Evolution, Math, Memes, Science

The flowers of Scotland

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Irvine Welsh reviews in the Guardian a book that sounds very interesting. His review begins:

Scottish Enlightenment: The Scots’ Invention of the Modern World
Arthur Herman
402pp, Fourth Estate, £20

It seems a grandiose contention that a small country like Scotland could come from the most adverse of circumstances to forge modern western democracy. Indeed, only the most patriotic Caledonians would proffer it without some reticence or qualification. Yet Arthur Herman, who is neither Scots nor of Scottish descent, provides a convincing and compelling argument as to its veracity. Professor Herman demonstrates an infectious and uplifting passion for his subject. Unlike many academics, he is a natural writer, weaving philosophical concerns seamlessly through a historical narrative that romps along at a cracking pace, producing a text that is highly accessible without compromising the rational quality of his argument.

The Knoxian revolution of the 16th century had resulted in 100 years of almost uninterrupted violence and bloodshed. Three consecutive failed harvests at the end of the 17th century, against the backdrop of England’s imperial growth, set the circumstances for Scotland’s ruling classes to sell out its sovereignty – literally. The Earl of Roseberry was paid £12,000 from a slush fund operated by the London government to enable this merger to take place. But rather than suffer the expected dilution into insignificance, Scotland became proportionately the most significant player in the union’s empire. And through innovations in philosophy, education, commerce, engineering, industry, architecture, town planning, soldiering, administration, medicine and even tourism, the Scots invented the modern world of capitalist democracy. The springboard for this was the most powerful legacy of the Presbyterian revolution: a universal (or near-universal) education system.

The Presbyterians popularised the notion that political power, though ordained by God, was vested not in the monarch or even in the clergy, but in the people. Yes, Scottish Presbyterians could behave like ayatollahs and the Kirk could, as in the infamous Aikenhead case of 1696, regularly incite public executions for spurious blasphemy or witchcraft charges. Paradoxically, though, in the very same year as Aikenhead’s execution, the Scottish parliament passed the Setting for Schools Act, establishing a school and salaried teacher in every parish.

The effect of this was that by 1750, with an estimated 75% level of literacy, the Scots were probably the most well-read nation on earth. The dichotomy between authoritarian repression and liberal inquiry in Scottish society was embodied in Robert Burns. At 16, the poverty-stricken Ayrshire ploughman was versed in Shakespeare, Alexander Pope, Locke, the Scottish poets and the French Enlightenment philosophers. The knock-on effects of the education act were felt in universities and the book trade. By 1790 Edinburgh boasted 16 publishing houses.

Living on the periphery of the UK had its advantages. Scots ended up with peace and order from a strong British state, but as England took little interest in affairs north of the border, retained the freedom to develop and innovate. The upper echelons of Scottish society refused to be intimidated by English cultural and linguistic dominance. David Hume speculated: “Why is it when we have lost parliament and monarchy and independent government, speak uneasily in a foreign tongue but yet are the People most distinguished for literature in Europe?” Voltaire agreed, contending, “It is to Scotland that we must look for our idea of civilisation.”

The book traces the main players in the Scottish Enlightenment, focusing on their foibles and fanaticism as well as their virtues. Hutcheson and Kames are given their rightful roles as antecedents of those giants of modern western thought, Hume and Adam Smith. Smith is restored as a philosopher of depth. His concerns about the socially debilitating nature of the modern capitalism he describes, and his advocacy of a universal education system, free him from the right-wing shackles with which he is often unfairly encumbered.

The nature of such a work inevitably means that the historical perspective has as its focus the prominence of charismatic individuals rather than, say, the struggle of the masses or responses to natural calamity. There are obvious flaws in this approach. The diaspora may have enriched western cultural society by enabling Scotland to export its institutions, beliefs and character. However, this came at the cost of great suffering which, in keeping with this perspective and Scottish Enlightenment philosophy, is justified in the name of progress.

This is where I emphatically depart from Arthur Herman. The Highland clearances are a shameful element of Scotland’s history, and can’t be glossed over in this manner. That such atrocities took place at the same time as a sanitised tartan-kitsch modern tourist industry was being created by Walter Scott for the patronage of the bloated, foppish, alcoholic English king only renders them all the more obscene. The problem with this notion of “a price of progress” is that it becomes self-serving by failing to take into account the non-enfranchisement and marginalisation of the people at the receiving end. By extension, it’s like suggesting that the Holocaust was a necessary evil in order to teach western civilisation about the dangers inherent in racism. Also, in his enthusiasm for all things Scottish, the author ignores the more overtly malign elements of the exported culture. At times Herman almost seems to claim that the “good” things in the empire – education, social reform and engineering – were solely the Scots’ doing. The bad bits – racism, slavery, religious indoctrination – were down to others (the English).

For example, it seems remiss to refer to Hutcheson, whose A System of Moral Philosophy inspired anti-slavery abolitionists in both Britain and America, while ignoring the compelling evidence of the Scots’ darker role in the slave trade. This lies in the surnames of many West Indians and black Americans (it’s now widely accepted that many slaves took their names not from their masters but from the Scottish overseers who enforced the brutal conditions under which they often lived). There is, however, no mention of the Scottish role in slavery and racism, particularly in the formation and development of the Ku Klux Klan, which was formed by defeated Scots Confederate officers in the south. The “order of the horse” oath ceremony recited by Klan members came straight from Highland custom, as did that ancient Scottish symbol, the burning cross.

While it’s refreshing to hear such an enthusiastic account of the Scottish ideas and practices that shaped the modern world, we need to offset them with harsher realities. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

19 November 2018 at 9:54 am

Fascinating: The Radical Pie That Fueled a Nation

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Rossi Anastapoulo writes in Taste:

The bean pie is sweet, custard-like, and a foundationally humble foodstuff. It’s also a culinary icon of the controversial Nation of Islam and of revolutionary black power.

he bean pie’s basic ingredients are simple: navy beans, sugar, eggs, milk, some warming spices, and a whole-wheat crust.

The execution is also straightforward, no different than any other custard-style pie, be it sweet potato or chess.

But the deceptively simple pie is one of the most enduring symbols of revolutionary black power that dates back from the civil rights movement. It has been sold on street corners and in high-end restaurants. It has been referenced in television shows and rap music, and Will Smith feasted on it with friends on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.Boxer Muhammad Ali even blamed one of his most famous losses on it.

The bean pie came to prominence through the Nation of Islam, a black nationalist and social reform movement founded in 1930. Based on beliefs that included black supremacy and self-reliance, the Nation represented a profound shift from the collaborative social-reform strategies of groups like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Led by controversial figures like Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad, the Nation preached a separatist movement that rejected all enforced doctrines of white society, from clothing to surnames to religion.

Instead, it advocated for a new black identity free from the legacies of enslavement. Christianity, for example, was abandoned in favor of Islam, and surnames given by slave owners were replaced by an X.

A follower’s diet, methodical and inflexible, was one of the pillars that supported this new identity. The Nation’s leaders argued that many dishes and ingredients traditional to black foodways, particularly soul food, were relics of the “slave diet” and had no part in the lives of contemporary African-Americans.

They also drew a line from soul food—specifically its elevated salt, fat, and sugar content—to the medical woes that disproportionately affected the black community, including high cholesterol, high blood pressure, hypertension, and obesity. Soul food, the Nation’s leaders believed, was just another means through which whites attempted to control and destroy the black population. As Elijah Muhammad, who led the Nation from 1934 to 1975, wrote in his two-book series How to Eat to Live, “You know as well as I that the white race is commercializing people and they do not worry about the lives they jeopardize so long as the dollar is safe. You might find yourself eating death if you follow them.” As a result, the Nation of Islam created its own radical—and somewhat idiosyncratic—new diet for his followers to adhere to, one influenced by both health and identity.

In How to Eat to Live, which was published in 1967, Muhammad emphasized vegetarianism, consuming whole grains and vegetables, and limiting sugar, processed grains, and traditional soul food ingredients, like sweet potatoes, corn, collard greens, and pork—the latter of which was vehemently forbidden to Nation members in accordance with Muslim law. Alcohol and tobacco were also prohibited. In their stead, black chefs cooked with ingredients like brown rice, smoked turkey, tahini, and tofu—which, as black culinary historian Jessica B. Harris writes in High on the Hog, “appeared on urban African American tables as signs of gastronomic protest against the traditional diet.”

The navy bean emerged as one of the Nation’s most important new ingredients; according to Muhammad, all other beans were divinely prohibited. “Do not eat any bean but the small navy bean—the little brown pink ones, and the white ones,” he wrote in How to Eat to Live. “Allah (God) says that the little navy bean will make you live, just eat them…. He said that a diet of navy beans would give us a life span of one hundred and forty years. Yet we cannot live [half] that length of time eating everything that the Christian table has set for us.”

The navy bean was used in a number of new Muslim recipes published in cookbooks and pamphlets, including soups, salads, and even cake frosting. But it was via the bean pie that it truly rose to prominence. The pie’s origins are unclear. Lance Shabazz, an archivist and historian of the Nation of Islam, told the Chicago Reader that the pie allegedly came from the Nation’s original founder, Wallace D. Fard Muhammad, who supposedly bestowed the recipe upon Elijah Muhammad and his wife, Clara, in the 1930s. This claim, however, has never been fully substantiated.

Although Muhammad never explicitly mentioned the bean pie in How to Eat to Live, it quickly rose to prominence in the black Muslim community. With a rich, custard-like filling from starchy mashed navy beans, the pie was generously spiced and pleasantly sweet—a true dessert, despite being full of beans. The beans’ nuttiness, combined with the warming kick of nutmeg and cinnamon, proved an irresistible dish, and soon, as Harris writes in High on the Hog, it could be found “hawked by the dark-suited, bow-tie-wearing followers of the religion along with copies of the Nation’s newspaper, Muhammad Speaks.” Muslim bakeries in cities from New York to Chicago offered it to customers, and “that’s where you would go to buy it, like going to get bread,” says black food historian Therese Nelson. It soon become a staple on the menus of restaurants owned by Nation members.

Lana Shabazz, Muhammad Ali’s personal chef, was renowned for her bean pie, and she included a recipe for it in her cookbook, Cooking for the Champ. As Shabazz wrote, the boxer so loved the pie that he even blamed it for his loss to Joe Frazier in the 1971 heavyweight title fight, having been unable to resist slices during his training.

Eventually, the bean pie became one of the defining hallmarks of the black Muslim diet—a “juggernaut,” to use Nelson’s term, that was a mainstay on dinner tables and in bakeries, and a fund-raising tool to support the initiatives of the Nation in communities across the United States.

One theory behind the bean pie’s potent symbolism is that . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

13 November 2018 at 1:31 pm

An Italian Cosmologist Who Wanders in Dante’s Dark Wood

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Siobhan Roberts writes in Quanta:

In 2004, the Italian theoretical cosmologist Valeria Pettorino wrote her doctoral thesis on “dark energy in generalized theories of gravity.” As a side project, she translated the opening lines of Dante’s Divine Comedy into a geometry problem.

“I felt there was mathematics already within Dante’s writing,” Pettorino said recently.

Dante’s epic poem, in Mark Musa’s translation, begins:

Midway along the journey of our life
I woke to find myself in a dark wood,
for I had wandered off from the straight path.

Pettorino’s translation reads:

Given a line segment AB of size equal to our life path, consider its midpoint M. If D is a man called Dante, D shall be coincident with M.
The segment AB shall be contained in a dark field DF.
Assuming that a circumference C exists, circumscribed to the dark field DF, verify that the straight line r is external to such circumference.

This reimagining, part of a creative writing group project, was published in a collection titled Faximile — an homage to admired authors and texts, in which the Pythagorean theorem became a story, The Iliad became a football match, and the Italian constitution was rendered in hendecasyllabic verse. “We liked the originals, and we wanted to play with them and understand them better,” Pettorino said.

She has approached cosmology in the same spirit, using storytelling from multiple angles as a guiding principle. After earning her Ph.D. in 2005, she traveled the world, hopping between institutions in Heidelberg, New York, Geneva and Valencia, as well as Naples, Turin and Trieste in her native Italy, alternating between observational, theoretical, methodological and statistical points of view in her study of the cosmos — a dark wood, rather like Dante’s. She considers all of these approaches necessary for unraveling the nature of dark matter and dark energy, little-understood substances that together comprise 95 percent of the universe.

It is perhaps not surprising that in 2016 Pettorino landed at the CosmoStat laboratory at CEA Saclay, a research institute 15 miles south of Paris. At CosmoStat, cosmologists and computer scientists collaborate to develop new statistical and signal-processing methods for interpreting the vast volumes of data acquired by modern telescopes. This summer, Pettorino helped complete the final analysis of data from the European Space Agency’s Planck space telescope, which mapped the early universe with unprecedented precision. Her main focus now is Euclid, the agency’s next major space telescope, set to launch in 2022. Euclid will gather 170 million gigabytes of data about billions of galaxies, slicing the universe at different epochs and tracking its evolution under dark influences.

Quanta Magazine spoke with Pettorino over Skype this summer as she helped organize the annual EuroPython conference for users of the Python programming language, among other extracurricular commitments. The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

You have many interests. Tell me how you became a cosmologist.

I hadn’t thought about cosmology at all when I started physics, and even then I wasn’t very convinced about physics in itself. But physics offered me a good opportunity to combine several different interests. At the time, I was living in Naples, my city. I really wanted to follow a path that would allow me to get to know people, live in different places, and learn languages. I certainly liked logic and mathematics. And I heard about physics from my uncle, Roberto Pettorino, who was a string theorist; he told me about strings, multiple dimensions, time travel. And I loved science fiction. The authors I read most were Philip José Farmer and Jack Vance — the stories had adventure, and different technologies, and they were very realistic, creating new worlds in great detail with things that don’t exist but could very easily have existed. I liked challenges. At that time, I was taking acting classes and creative writing classes. And then I just said, “Let’s do physics!” I was curious about the whole picture, and physics looked to me like a good combination of logic, of communication, of imagination. My main goal was to learn, to increase my knowledge, to satisfy my curiosity.

How did you eventually find cosmology?

I started physics as an undergraduate at the end of 1997, and then in 1998 there was the cosmic acceleration discovery, revealing that a lot of the universe was completely unknown, and this immediately attracted my curiosity. What happened was that independent observations by two different supernova research teams showed very surprising results: Cosmologists were expecting the universe to be expanding after the Big Bang, and since gravity attracts things toward each other, the expectation was that the universe’s expansion was decelerating. Evidence from supernova explosions showed that the expansion is, instead, accelerating — as if there is some extra form of energy that counteracts gravity and increases the velocity of the expansion. This is generically named “dark energy.”

Since 1998, many other experiments have confirmed the same picture: Normal atoms only account for about 5 percent of the total energy budget in the universe. There is an extra 25 percent that is in the form of “dark matter.” Dark matter still feels gravity, but we don’t observe it directly; it acts as a glue that allows structures, like galaxies and clusters of galaxies, to form. And then there is the rest — 70 percent — which is dark energy, and which should be responsible for cosmic acceleration.

The ever-elusive dark energy — what is it?

That’s still unclear. The simplest way to describe it is as a kind of energy whose density is constant everywhere in time and space, termed the “cosmological constant.” This is one new parameter added to the theory of general relativity, and in practice it fits the data very well — including the final data from the Planck space satellite. Unfortunately, the problem is that the cosmological constant is not well-understood theoretically. First, we cannot predict its value, and we need to have very precise initial conditions to end up with the “right” observed value of this constant. This is the fine-tuning problem. Secondly, the cosmological constant marks our epoch as a very special time within the evolution of the universe. The density of dark energy was completely negligible in the past compared to the density of dark matter (which was higher in the past, when the volume of the visible universe was smaller.) In the future, however, dark energy will dominate over all species of matter, because the dark-matter density will continue to decrease as the universe expands. We happen to live in that epoch in which the cosmological constant is of roughly the same order as matter. That’s a big coincidence.

So if this big coincidence doesn’t seem like a plausible storyline, then maybe a big modification is needed?

This lack of understanding about the cosmological constant has motivated researchers to look for alternative explanations. Cosmic acceleration could be caused by a new fluid, or a new particle whose density changes in time instead of being constant, or more than one particle, or more than one fluid. Or, cosmic acceleration could be the hint that our laws of gravity (namely, Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity) need to be modified, particularly at very large scales.

Astrophysicists have already tested general relativity at the scale of the solar system. Models referred to as “modified gravity” try to modify general relativity at very large scales to account for cosmic acceleration. Some of these modified-gravity models have been excluded already, for example after the recent detection of gravitational waves. But there are still many models fitting current data, and no clear solution of the theoretical problems associated with the cosmological-constant scenario.

You’ve moved around a lot during your career. What effect has this had on your approach, being exposed to such a wide spectrum of people and ideas? . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

13 November 2018 at 1:04 pm

Posted in Books, Daily life, Science

End Intellectual Property

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Samir Chopra, professor of philosophy at Brooklyn College and the City University of New York, writes in Aeon:

The grand term ‘intellectual property’ covers a lot of ground: the software that runs our lives, the movies we watch, the songs we listen to. But also the credit-scoring algorithms that determine the contours of our futures, the chemical structure and manufacturing processes for life-saving pharmaceutical drugs, even the golden arches of McDonald’s and terms such as ‘Google’. All are supposedly ‘intellectual property’. We are urged, whether by stern warnings on the packaging of our Blu-ray discs or by sonorous pronouncements from media company CEOs, to cease and desist from making unwanted, illegal or improper uses of such ‘property’, not to be ‘pirates’, to show the proper respect for the rights of those who own these things. But what kind of property is this? And why do we refer to such a menagerie with one inclusive term?

The phrase ‘intellectual property’ was first used in a legal decision in 1845 and acquired formal heft in 1967 with the establishment of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), a specialised agency of the United Nations that represents and protects the commercial interests of holders of copyrights, patents, trademarks and trade secrets. The ubiquitous use of ‘intellectual property’ began in the digital era of production, reproduction and distribution of cultural and technical artifacts. As a new political economy appeared, so did a new commercial and legal rhetoric. ‘Intellectual property’, a central term in that new discourse, is a culturally damaging and easily weaponised notion. Its use should be resisted.

There are four areas of US federal law linked under the rubric of ‘intellectual property’ that we ought to keep separate in our minds. In an essay published in The Politics of Law (2010), Keith Aoki defines each as follows. Copyrightprotects ‘original works such as books, music, sculpture, movies and aspects of computer programs’ that are ‘embodied or fixed in a tangible medium’. This protection does not require a work to be entirely novel and extends only to its ‘original aspects’, to ‘a particular expression … not the underlying ideas’, and not to ‘independently created or similar works’. Under the umbrella of copyright law are original, concrete expressions, not ideas – the same story and script idea can generate many distinct movies, for instance. Then there are patents, which cover ‘new and useful inventions, manufactures, compositions of matter and processes reduced to practice by inventors’ with ‘rigorous requirements of subject matter, novelty, utility and non-obviousness’. Patents protect realised inventions and ideas in gestation – eg, here is a new method for collecting rainwater, and this is a machine that does just that. Trademarks (and the related ‘trade dresses’) meanwhile protect consumers from ‘mistake, confusion and deception’ about the sources of commercial goods: the ‘G’ in Gucci, Apple’s apple, a distinctive packaging. Finally, there are trade secrets, or secret information that confers economic benefits on its holder and is subject to the holder’s reasonable efforts to maintain its secrecy.

Each regime has a public-policy justification: copyright law incentivises the production of creative works, which populate the public domain of culture. Patent law lets inventors and users benefit from the original ideas disclosed in a patent filing, and aims to make research and development economically feasible by producing investment in new technologies and products. Trademark law protects customers by informing them that their preferred vendor – and not some counterfeiter making inferior goods – is the source of the goods they’re buying. Copyright- and patent-holders extract monopoly rent from protected subject matter, or its concrete expression, for a limited period. Such limited exclusivity is meant to encourage the further production of original expressions and inventions by providing raw materials for other creators and inventors to build on.

In the United States, media and technology have been shaped by these laws, and indeed many artists and creators owe their livelihoods to such protections. But recently, in response to the new ways in which the digital era facilitates the creation and distribution of scientific and artistic products, the foundations of these protections have been questioned. Those calling for reform, such as the law professors Lawrence Lessig and James Boyle, free software advocates such as Richard Stallman, and law and economics scholars such as William Landes and Judge Richard Posner, ask: is ‘intellectual property’ the same kind of property as ‘tangible property’, and are legal protections for the latter appropriate for the former? And to that query, we can add: is ‘intellectual property’ an appropriate general term for the widely disparate areas of law it encompasses?

The answer to all these questions is no. And answering the latter question will help to answer the former.

Stallman is a computer hacker extraordinaire and the fieriest exponent of the free-software movement, which holds that computer users and programmers should be free to copy, share and distribute software source code. He has argued that the term ‘intellectual property’ be discarded in favour of the precise and directed use of ‘copyright’, ‘patents’, ‘trademarks’ or ‘trade secrets’ instead – and he’s right. This is not merely semantic quibbling. The language in which a political and cultural debate is conducted very often determines its outcome.

Stallman notes that copyright, patent, trademark and trade secret law were motivated by widely differing considerations. Their intended purposes, the objects covered and the permissible constraints all vary. In fact, knowledge of one body of law rarely carries over to another. (A common confusion is to imagine that an object protected by one area of law is actually protected by another: ‘McDonald’s’ is protected by trademark law, not copyright law, as many consumers seem to think.)

Such diversity renders most ‘general statements … using “intellectual property”… false,’ Stallman writes. Consider the common claim that intellectual property promotes innovation: this is actually true only of patent law. Novels are copyrighted even if they are formulaic, and copyright only incentivises the production of new works as public goods while allowing creators to make a living. These limited rights do not address innovations, which is also true of trademark and trade secret law. Crucially, ‘intellectual property’ is only partially concerned with rewarding creativity (that motivation is found in copyright law alone). Much more than creativity is ‘needed to make a patentable invention’, Stallman explains, while trademark and trade secret law are orthogonal to creativity or its encouragement.

A general term is useful only if it subsumes related concepts in such a way that semantic value is added. If our comprehension is not increased by our chosen generalised term, then we shouldn’t use it. A common claim such as ‘they stole my intellectual property’ is singularly uninformative, since the general term ‘intellectual property’ obscures more than it illuminates. If copyright infringement is alleged, we try to identify the copyrightable concrete expression, the nature of the infringement and so on. If patent infringement is alleged, we check another set of conditions (does the ‘new’ invention replicate the design of the older one?), and so on for trademarks (does the offending symbol substantially and misleadingly resemble the protected trademark?) and trade secrets (did the enterprise attempt to keep supposedly protected information secret?) The use of the general term ‘intellectual property’ tells us precisely nothing.

Furthermore, the extreme generality encouraged by ‘intellectual property’ obscures the specific areas of contention created by the varying legal regimes. Those debating copyright law wonder whether the copying of academic papers should be allowed; patent law is irrelevant here. Those debating patent law wonder whether pharmaceutical companies should have to issue compulsory licences for life-saving drugs to poor countries; copyright law is irrelevant here. ‘Fair use’ is contested in copyright litigation; there is no such notion in patent law. ‘Non-obviousness’ is contested in patent law; there is no such notion in copyright law. Clubbing these diversities under the term ‘intellectual property’ has induced a terrible intellectual error: facile and misleading overgeneralisation.

Indiscriminate use of ‘intellectual property’ has unsurprisingly bred absurdity. Anything associated with a ‘creator’ . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

Written by LeisureGuy

12 November 2018 at 9:26 am

The best books on The Odyssey as recommended by Emily Wilson

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Stephanie Kelley interviews Emily Watson for Five Books:

The narrative of the Odyssey has been constantly rewritten by centuries of writers, but it’s a rich text that, like so much of Greek myth, is always already open to revising its own narrative. Emily Wilson, Professor of Classics at the University of Pennsylvania and the first woman to translate the Odyssey into English, recommends the best books to read after (or alongside) the Ancient Greek epic, and offers sage wisdom about both translating ancient epics and why everyone can learn from the Odyssey today.

You’ve picked the best books to read after (or alongside) The Odyssey. But first, let’s discuss your translation. How did you first come to love Homer and the poem?

I was first exposed to the story at the age of eight, when I was in a school play version of the Odyssey in Oxford. Then in high school, I started reading it little bits of it in Greek, and later read the whole poem in college. I was always excited by the way it’s a story about being lost and being at home, and whether you can tell the difference between them. Where is it that Odysseus is fully at home? Does that depend on who he is? The answer to that question seems to be constantly changing, so how can there be such a thing as a stable home?

As I’ve gone on rereading the poem over the last three decades, I’ve realized more clearly that it’s not just Odysseus’s story. There are so many perspectives in the story beyond the central character. I love the way that it’s about identity, about change, about class difference, about foreignness, about strangeness. So many things resonate in so many different ways—and have resonated differently at different points in my life. I feel like I read it differently now that I’m a parent compared to when I read it, having parents but not actually being one.

That’s so interesting. How do you read it differently as a mother?

I was never all that interested in the Telemachus story when I was younger. It used to seem like the first four books are just waiting until we get to the main narrative. Now, I think the Telemachus story really matters. Will this poor bullied kid ever get to grow up? As an alienated kid, I didn’t think that was as interesting, because I didn’t think of Telemachus as a positive role model for the alienated teenager.

Now that I have children of my own, I see his vulnerability in a different way. I see the way that vulnerability produces his aggression and violence. I have three daughters, which also influences how I see the interplay of power and gender in the poem. It’s hard to pin down precisely how, but on some level, I’m more aware of both the extraordinary power of the goddesses and the total lack of power of the slave women, including Melantho, the quasi-daughter of Penelope. As a single mother, I’m more aware than I used to be of Penelope’s struggle to take care of a child who is always yearning for the parent who isn’t there, and how hard that is for both of them, for all of them.

Part of what’s so exciting about your translation is not only that you’re the first woman to translate the poem into English (which of course is great and overdue) but also the way you return to the original language to radically open up its possibilities, often deviating subtly from previous translations. One example is the episode in Book 12 with the Sirens. On Twitter, you compared the original Greek to translations by men such as Fagles, Fitzgerald, Dimock/Murray, and Pope, showing how they change “mouth” to “lips” and “knowledge” to “wisdom” to make the Sirens seem more seductive. Can you talk about that process—both of translating and now of surveying the field of Odyssey translations?

Going back to the Greek is what all translators are supposed to be doing. They’re supposed to be working with the Greek; it isn’t as if they’re supposed to be copying from each other. That can happen inadvertently, quite innocently, but it’s definitely something to watch out for.

I didn’t look at other translations while working on mine, because I wanted to try my very best to do some fresh wrestling with interpretative and translatorly problems. Since I’ve published my own, I’ve looked more at little bits from different translations, and actually, it’s been a bit disappointing to realize how many similarities there are between them. For instance, if you compare the poem’s opening in Lombardo, Fagles and Fitzgerald, you’ll notice a lot of verbal echoing from one to the other that isn’t necessary. As in, if you looked at the Greek without looking at earlier translations, you wouldn’t replicate verbal echoing to such an extent as this. The echoing effect isn’t merely about gender. It’s not that a man necessarily reads differently from a woman. It’s just that once you’ve looked at other translations, you might end up reproducing them—even if you didn’t want to do that.

Testing the differences between my translation and others is all retrospective, of course. I didn’t set out thinking, ‘Let me avoid being sexist!’ I hadn’t thought of it as something I had to consciously do. [Laughs.] As I set out to do the translation, I was thinking about style, about metre, about poetics. I was also wondering how I might emphasize what I’ve realized in the course of multiple re-readings of the poem, which is, again, just how much it’s not just Odysseus’s story. How could I show that Odysseus’s way of focalizing the narrative is just one of the many complex things this poem is doing? It’s not just showing us Odysseus’s point of view; it’s also showing us the point of view of Calypso, of Penelope, of Telemachus. Each of these characters sees things differently.

Specifically on that Sirens passage: there’s a repeated trope in the poem of the dangerous female mouth, especially within the wandering books. We have Charybdis, who’s all mouth. We have Scylla, who has six mouths. Then, right before that, we have the Sirens, with their dangerous mouths. The Greek word is stoma (‘στομάτων’), which literally means ‘mouth’. It could be entirely legitimate and valid to use ‘lips’ in the translation, if you decide it’s more idiomatic, or if you think it fits better with the context and usage of a particular passage.

There isn’t a right answer about what to do. I wanted to use ‘mouth’ for this particular instance of mouths in the Greek, because otherwise we miss that thread of imagery. That thread matters partly because the danger of female mouths is echoed in the main narrative, where Odysseus is no longer the main narrator, and where Telemachus twice shuts up Penelope, insisting in Book 1 that speech (mythos, maybe suggesting public discourse) belongs to men, and then again in Book 21, that she doesn’t get to set the terms about the Contest of the Bow.

There’s an important and ongoing notion in the poem that not just the action but also the speaking has to be controlled by men. It’s connected with Telemachus’ decision to hang the women who have slept with or been raped by the suitors: he insists that the right means to enact this murder is by hanging, which of course is the most permanent way to shut a woman up. Paying attention to this conceptual and metaphorical thread in the poem, in its focus on the ways mortal male characters see female mouths as a threat, is related to gender in a way, but I don’t think it’s self-evident from the fact that I’m a woman that I would have made that choice. Not every woman notices the same things in every book or poem. My noticing this kind of thing isn’t innate; it has a great deal to do with my having read lots of other recent scholarship and criticism of the poem, including feminist and narratological readings of Homer.

I suppose it’s one thing to be a woman translating, and another to be aware of gender when translating.

They’re not at all the same, yes.

You chose to translate the Odyssey into verse, taking iambic pentameter as a modern equivalent for the original dactylic hexameter. Your translation also achieves an elegant balance, apparent from the very first lines, of colloquial spoken conversation and literariness. How difficult was it to achieve this balance? How long did the translation take?

It was a very difficult balance. I had a five-year contract, and I felt in the first two years like I wasn’t achieving anything. It took a lot of grappling and writing multiple drafts before I achieved some voice I felt I could sustain. I did a lot of rewriting, especially with my earliest drafts, just to try and figure out how exactly I was going to balance out making the poem sound both ‘speakable’ and regularly metrical. One of my reasons for taking on the project at all was the frustration about the fact that the original is so regular in its metre, and most contemporary translations are not. So I wanted a regular metrical rhythm, but without doing it in a stiff way, and without giving the translation the appearance of trying to be Milton, or trying to be Pope.

I felt there was a directness about Homeric syntax that I wanted to honor by having a kind of directness, simplicity, and speakability about the verse. At the same time, I didn’t want to make it just the same as any conversation, even if we were having a conversation in iambic pentameter. I wanted there to be a feeling that it’s at least a tiny bit off from normal conversation. And that was very difficult. It would have been quite possible to ‘foreignize’ much more than I did. I wrestled with the degree to which I wanted to make it sound distancing as opposed to immersive.

How did you go about picking the five titles in your list?

I wanted to pick books that I think are both fabulous in themselves, but also illustrate the richness of the tradition of interpretation of the Odyssey across the many, many centuries that it’s been not only read and re-read, but also re-written, having pieces stolen from it and repurposed or responded to in certain ways.

It would have been very easy to pick fifty rather than five books, and I’m not at all sure that if I were on the guillotine, I could say with certainty, ‘These are the only five!’ Of course I’m aware that I omitted a very very long list of other books that are wonderful, that everybody should read, and that are deeply responding to the Odyssey—like Joyce’s Ulyssses, or Walcott’s Omeros.  The Odyssey has been around a long time, and has inspired a great many different responses and rewritings. I wanted a list that would show just a glimpse of how the tropes and the stories and the characters from the Odyssey have a richness in and of themselves, a rich ability to be rewritten.

Another text that’s not on my list but speaks to this is The Lost Books of the Odyssey, a novel by Zachary Mason which re-writes endings of the Odyssey. This text illustrates something already there in the Odyssey itself: that it’s open to rethinking its own plot even while it’s going along. The Odyssey is a text with a hugely layered and long reception history. But the poem itself is also open to rethinking its own narratives, in the ways it layers different stories and different perspectives onto one another.

Your first book is a collection of Greek plays, in particular, your own translation of Helen by Euripides. Many will know Euripides, one of the great Greek tragedians alongside Aeschylus and Sophocles, for plays like Medea and Electra, among others. Why did you pick Helen?

Aeschylus, according to legend, said that his own work was all slices from the banquet of Homer. Athenian tragedy can be seen as a genre at least partly invented out of a condensing and intensifying of motifs and plots from the Homeric poems.  The tropes that Aristotle, in the Poetics, claims are essential components in tragic plots—recognition, reversal and suffering—are all there in Homer, as are the tragic motifs of conflict within families, of the brave, elite individual who is alienated from his or her community, of clashes between cultures, and of anger, grief, accidental and deliberate killing, and revenge. The Odyssey in particular, in the second half, sets up a sequence of one recognition-scene after another, within a grand revenge plot.

Helen by Euripides is in many ways the most Odysseyean of the tragedies we have, not least because it features Helen as the central character. In many ways, she’s quite similar to the Helen from Book 4 of the Odyssey. This Helen seems to be untainted in certain ways by the bad reputation and horrors of the war. In the case of the Odyssey, she’s untainted because she’s managed to get back with Menelaus, and the ten years of her time in Troy is all papered over—although it’s notable that Helen also makes it okay by providing useful drugs that can numb everybody to any kind of pain; and she and her brash husband tell very different stories about how Helen’s capacity for using clever schemes and disguises played out on the battlefield. In the Euripides version, by contrast, Helen has never been to Troy at all; the gods have substituted a phantom for the real woman, and whisked her off to Egypt, where she’s spent the past ten years waiting for Menelaus to return from war.

It’s a complete re-write, which turns Helen into a new version of the Homeric Penelope: she’s the miserable chaste wife, whose beauty brings her harassment from annoyingly, scarily persistent local guy(s), and whose marriage is defined by grief. Euripides’ Helen, like Homer’s Penelope, is smart and good at thinking of clever schemes to outwit her suitor: Penelope uses the fake-piety of insisting she has to weave a shroud for not-yet-dead Laertes when he dies, and Helen uses a similar trick, insisting she has to bury her not-actually-dead husband out at sea (which enables them to get away). But it seems that the Odyssey itself is already trying to imagine, ‘What if we re-wrote Helen, and she’s not actually on the walls of Troy as she is in the Iliad, but having a lovely life in this rich palace? And what if the Helen of myth, or the Helen of the Iliad, were reinvented as Penelope?’  There’s a lot of common ground between those two much-courted, clever women, both weavers and dreamers, whose chastity is always being questioned.

In Euripides, Helen is obsessed with plot and strategizing. In this way, the Helen of Euripides is also similar to Odysseus of the Odyssey. She’s constantly scheming, constantly devising ways that her disguises—including her face, her beauty—are not the same as her identity. The question ‘Are you what you look like?’, which is also central to the Odyssey, is at the forefront of this play, as is the question of what it means to have a long-term marriage, especially with someone you have huge differences from. At the heart of both works, too, is the theme of foreignness, about what it means to be in a space that isn’t your home space. Helen is set in Egypt, and Helen is being courted by the barbarian tyrant.

Your translation of lines describing the premise of the play is beautiful and breath-taking: “She gave king Priam’s son an empty image, / not me but something like me, made of air / but breathing. So he thought that he had me, / but it was just an empty false appearance.” I’m drawn to the idea of women as ghostly and unreal, and the experience of having a womanly body (especially a beautiful one) as a form of being cursed. How is that idea expressed in the classics, in works like the Odyssey and Helen?

Penelope of the Odyssey is a version of that phenomenon. She’s conscious of her face as something she has to constantly veil. It’s a source of power, but also a source of vulnerability. Once she shows her face to any man, it somehow lays her open to being stolen—being raped like Helen, or taken away or claimed in some way.

Penelope insists her face is vulnerable to time, marked by the years of abandonment and grief.  But when Athena gives her the divine make-over and makes her show herself to the suitors, looking irresistibly attractive, that isn’t necessarily better or more empowering for her, in contrasts to the make-overs of Odysseus; it increases the men’s desire to claim her. The Helen of Euripides isn’t marked by time; she’s as beautiful as ever. But her beauty creates its own kind of vulnerability, and it makes her, like Penelope, constantly a target for male judgment and male misinterpretation.

You’re right that there is something fascinating about the idea that there might be an emptiness either at the heart of the construct of desire, or the construct of the desirable woman specifically. How does appearance match reality—or does it? I was trying to make the connection not only with gender, but also with Odysseus and his many disguises. In the Odyssey, Odysseus and Helen have so much in common. They can both be nobody.

Your second choice is often paired with the Odyssey and The Iliad: Virgil’s Aeneid. . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

11 November 2018 at 6:47 am

Posted in Art, Books, Education, Memes

Bonfire of the humanities

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David Armitage, Professor of History at Harvard University, and Jo Guldi, Assistant Professor of History at Brown University, have in Aeon an extract from their book The History Manifesto (2014 – available as a free download here):

It has long been fashionable to say that the globe is shrinking. In the wake of the telegraph, the steamship and the railway, thinkers from the late 19th century onwards often wrote of space and time being annihilated by new technologies. In our current age of jet travel and the internet, we often hear that the world is flat, and that we live in a global village. Time has also been compressed. Timespans ranging from a few months to a few years determine most formal planning and decision-making – by corporations, governments, non-governmental organisations and international bodies. Quarterly reporting by companies; electoral cycles of 18 months to seven years; planning horizons of one to five years: these are the usual temporal boundaries of our hot, crowded, and flattened little world. In the 1980s, this myopic vision found a name: short-termism.

Short-termism has no defenders. Everyone seems to be against it, and yet proponents of alternatives are also in short supply. One prominent opponent of short-termism is Stewart Brand, founder in the 1960s of the Whole Earth Catalog and a leading cyber-utopian ever since. Among his visionary projects is the Long Now Foundation, based in San Francisco and founded in what Brand and his fellow foundationeers call 01996 ‘to creatively foster long-term thinking and responsibility in the framework of the next 10,000 years’. The extra zero alerts us to a longer timescale, not of decades or centuries but of millennia.

The Long Now Foundation does look to the past, for example with its ‘de-extinction’ project, Revive and Restore, to bring defunct species back to life using genomic technology. But Brand’s most imaginative solution to short-termism is to look further into the future. This is the principal message of the Clock of the Long Now, a slow-moving mechanism being built in a Texas mountain that will run for 10,000 years.

Looking forward into the future is also the strategy proposed by the Oxford Martin Commission for Future Generations, chaired by the former director-general of the World Trade Organisation, Pascal Lamy, and convened under the aegis of the Oxford Martin School at Oxford University. Last year, the Martin Commission issued its report, Now for the Long Term, ‘focusing on the increasing short-termism of modern politics and our collective inability to break the gridlock which undermines attempts to address the biggest challenges that will shape our future’. Again, the thrust was forward-looking and firmly turned to the future.

What Brand and the Martin Commission have missed is the need to look deeper into the past as well as further into the future. There are no historians on the board of the Long Now Foundation, nor were there any among the global luminaries assembled on the Martin Commission. The Clock of the Long Now points forward for millennia but has roots barely decades long; few of the examples of global problems in Now for the Long Term came from before the 1940s. Short-termism about the past apparently afflicts even those who attack short-termism about the future. Yet if historians have been absent from these initiatives, they can’t blame only the futurologists for their fate.

The humanities departments of our universities should be the place to go for a long look in the rear-view mirror. After all, universities have been among the most enduring institutions humans have created. The average half-life of a business corporation has been estimated at 75 years: capitalism’s creative destruction sees most companies crumble before they reach their centenary. The Spanish founded universities in Mexico City and Lima in Peru decades before Harvard and Yale were chartered, and 450 years later, both still exist. The first wave of university foundations in Europe occurred between the late 11th and early 13th centuries. And India’s Nalanda University in the northern state of Bihar was set up as a Buddhist institution more than 1,500 years ago: it has been recently refounded and had its first new intake of students this September. As Michael Spence, vice-chancellor of the University of Sydney, recently wrote, universities are ‘the one player capable of making long-term, infrastructure-intensive research investments’; compared with businesses, they are the only ‘entities globally capable of supporting research on 20‑, 30‑, or 50‑year time horizons’.

The mission of the humanities is to transmit questions about value – and to question values – by testing traditions that build up over centuries and millennia. And within the humanities, it is the discipline of history that provides an antidote to short-termism, by giving pointers to the long future derived from knowledge of the deep past. Yet at least since the 1970s, most professional historians – that is, most historians holding doctorates in the field and teaching in universities or colleges – conducted most of their research on timescales of between five and 50 years.

The novelist Kingsley Amis satirised this tendency towards ever more microscopic specialisation among historians as early as 1954 in Lucky Jim, the work from which all later campus novels sprang. Jim Dixon, an anxious junior lecturer, frets throughout the book about the fate of a well-polished article meant to jump-start his career. Its topic? ‘The Economic Influence of the Developments in Shipbuilding Techniques, 1450 to 1485’. ‘It was a perfect title,’ the narrator tells us, ‘in that it crystallised the article’s niggling mindlessness, its funereal parade of yawn-enforcing facts, the pseudo-light it threw upon non-problems.’ Within only a couple of decades, any PhD supervisor on either side of the Atlantic would have discouraged a topic of such breadth and complexity, spanning almost four decades, as foolhardy in the extreme.

When historians first became professionalised in the late 19th century, it was still possible for them to tackle subjects of genuine breadth and ambition. In the US, Frederick Jackson Turner – later famous for his ‘frontier thesis’ of American national development – wrote his PhD thesis in 1891 on frontier trading posts from the 17th to the 19th centuries. In 1895, W E B du Bois, the first African-American to receive a PhD from Harvard, studied the suppression of the African slave-trade from 1638 to 1870 for his doctoral research.

A recent survey of some 8,000 history dissertations written in the US since the 1880s has shown that the average period covered in 1900 was about 75 years; by 1975, that had shrunk to about 30. (Matters were even worse in the UK, where PhD students had less time to undertake their research and writing than most US students, and timescales were even more abrupt.) Only in the past decade has it rebounded again to somewhere between 75 and 100 years.

There were many reasons for historians’ turn towards a shorter vision of the past. A competitive job-market meant that newly minted historians had to show their mastery of archives – sometimes, the more obscure and inaccessible the better – as well as their command of a fast-growing body of scholarship. If you did not get your hands dirty with original documents, you were hardly a historian at all. Such experience was hard-won and could be undertaken only for smaller slices of time and space.

Around the same time, the practice of micro-history became prevalent throughout the historical profession. Books such as Carlo Ginzburg’s The Cheese and the Worms (1976), Robert Darnton’s The Great Cat Massacre(1984), or Natalie Zemon Davis’s The Return of Martin Guerre (1984) revealed fascinating puzzles in the cultural life of our ancestors, told through startling stories or seemingly incomprehensible incidents, all unpacked using tools first forged by ethnographers and anthropologists.

A focus on exceptional individuals and events dovetailed with the ‘suspicion towards grand narratives’ that the French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard gave in 1979 as the definition of postmodernism. Large stories, told across long sweeps of time, became both unfashionable and unfeasible, at least for anyone claiming professional competence as a historian. Grand narratives were associated with the grim determinism of Oswald Spengler, author of Decline of the West (1918), or the globe-scanning schemes of Arnold J Toynbee, author of the 12-volume A Study of History (1934-61). Historians might supply surveys in their classrooms or textbooks, but lack of familiarity with the sources – all of them, in their gritty detail – seemed to guarantee grandiosity and superficiality at the expense of fine-grained detail and complex reconstruction.

This move towards shorter timescales marked a double retreat, the first from the core mission of history since classical times, the second from the influential practice of post-War French historians to study longer-term histories. For more than 2,000 years, from the time of Thucydides to the middle of the 20th century, one of the primary purposes of learning about the past was to orient oneself towards the future. Cicero wrote in the first century BCE that history was a ‘guide to life’ (magistra vitae) – for politicians, their advisers, and for citizens.

This was the classical spirit in which Machiavelli and his contemporaries wrote their histories, whether of ancient Rome or of their own city-states such as Florence, taking lessons from Rome’s arming of the plebeians or its strategies for territorial expansion when considering the destinies of their communities. It was also the aim of historians in the Enlightenment, among them David Hume, Voltaire, and even Adam Smith, whose Wealth of Nationswas at its heart a history of Europe and its overseas empires written to inform debate about the commercial future of Europe and its colonies and published in the fateful year of 1776.

After the French Revolution, practising politicians in Britain and France often turned to the past to shape current debate, with leading politicians – for example, François Guizot, Adolphe Thiers and Jean Jaurès in France, and Thomas Babington Macaulay and Lord John Russell in Britain – writing histories of their own revolutionary pasts to shape their national futures. History was a ‘school of statesmanship’, in the words of J R Seeley, the Regius Professor of Modern History in late-Victorian Cambridge. In the same moment, a text such as Alfred Thayer Mahan’s The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660-1783 (1890) could become the textbook on military strategy in naval colleges in the US, Germany and Japan, assigned in classrooms for decades. Moving to a Short Past, without an eye to action or a tilt towards the future, marked professional skill but also broke historians from their long-developed habit of informing the public sphere.

More immediately, the Short Past marked a retreat from what the great French historian Fernand Braudel had called the longue durée (meaning, the long term). Braudel remains famous even now, and even beyond historians, for his multilayered, ocean-spanning history of the Mediterranean in the age of Philip II, published in 1949. Between 1940 and 1945, Braudel planned his masterwork while he was held in detention camps in Germany where he had lectured to his fellow inmates on the course and meaning of history. He later reflected that the unchanging rhythms of internment – the repetitive routines, seemingly without hope or reason – forced him to think along longer timescales in order to recover hope beyond the tedium of the daily round.

Camp life strongly shaped Braudel’s vision of the Mediterranean past, which he told as three successive histories: a ‘seemingly immobile’ story of the unchanging physical environment; a ‘gently paced’ history of states, societies, and civilisations; and the more conventional narrative of those ‘brief, rapid, nervous oscillations’ called events. For Braudel, events were the ‘froth’ on the waves of time but they should not be confused with history, which took place at much greater depths and often hidden from view.

Braudel baptised this movement ‘la longue durée’ in 1958, as a shot in an academic and institutional power-game being played out in France while the Fourth Republic was giving way to the Fifth amid domestic and international crises. Braudel bemoaned what he saw as a crisis of the human sciences, in which knowledge was exploding, data had got out of control, intellectual fields became more inward-looking, and many scholars focused only on the short-term, the here and now, and the politically expedient.

As a solution to this crisis, Braudel offered history as the only discipline capable of explaining how immediate events fit into larger, indeed, longer patterns. . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

10 November 2018 at 10:11 am

Posted in Books, Daily life, Education

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