The Group Effort

by Jessie Roberts

Bill McKibben thinks that climate science has risen to prominence “not despite its lack of clearly identifiable leaders … [but] because of it”:

For environmentalists, we have a useful analogy close at hand. We’re struggling to replace a brittle, top-heavy energy system, where a few huge power plants provide our electricity, with a dispersed and lightweight grid, where 10 million solar arrays on 10 million rooftops are linked together. The engineers call this “distributed generation,” and it comes with a myriad of benefits. It’s not as prone to catastrophic failure, for one. And it can make use of dispersed energy, instead of relying on a few pools of concentrated fuel. The same principle, it seems to me, applies to movements.

In the last few weeks, for instance, helped support a nationwide series of rallies called Summerheat. We didn’t organize them ourselves. We knew great environmental justice groups all over the country, and we knew we could highlight their work, while making links between, say, standing up to a toxic Chevron refinery in Richmond, California, and standing up to the challenge of climate change.

From the shores of Lake Huron and Lake Michigan, where a tar-sands pipeline is proposed, to the Columbia River at Vancouver, Washington, where a big oil port is planned, from Utah’s Colorado Plateau, where the first U.S. tar-sands mine has been proposed, to the coal-fired power plant at Brayton Point on the Massachusetts coast and the fracking wells of rural Ohio—Summerheat demonstrated the local depth and global reach of this emerging fossil fuel resistance. I’ve had the pleasure of going to talk at all these places and more besides, but I wasn’t crucial to any of them. I was, at best, a pollinator, not a queen bee.

The Appeal Of Used Book Stores

by Jessie Roberts

Charles Simic contemplates it:

Years ago, in a store in New York that specialized in Alchemy, Eastern Religions, Theosophy, Mysticism, Magic, and Witchcraft, I remember coming across a book called How to Become Invisible that I realized would make a perfect birthday present for a friend who was on the run from a collection agency trying to repossess his car. It cost fifteen cents, which struck me as a pretty steep price considering the quality of the contents.

What made these stores, stocked with unwanted libraries of dead people, attractive to someone like me is that they were more indiscriminate and chaotic than public libraries and thus made browsing more of an adventure. Among the crowded shelves, one’s interest was aroused by the title or the appearance of a book. Then came the suspense of opening it, checking out the table of contents, and if it proved interesting, thumbing the pages, reading a bit here and there and looking for underlined passages and notes in the margins. How delightful to find some unknown reader commenting in pencil on a Victorian love poem: “Shit,” or coming across this inscription in a beautiful edition of one of the French classics:

For my daughter,
make beauty, humanity and wisdom
your lifelong objectives; and in all circumstances
you will know what to do. Happiness will be
the reward for your efforts.

Architecture At Play

by Jessie Roberts


Edwin Heathcote asks renowned architect Lord Foster how he’s been influenced by childhood construction sets like Meccano:

“We’ve found,” says Foster, “that parallel to the rapid rise of computing power is an exponential growth in model-making. Even here in Silicon Valley, the home of the digital, our presentations are analogue. The people we deal with out here, mostly in their twenties, the most computer numerate in the world, still often only understand the building as a model. The change is not as dramatic as you’d think.”

As Foster suggests, the need to create models to explain imagined worlds is a residual survival of the childhood model-making urge. Computer games from SimCity to Medieval Mayor allow you to build entire cities in seconds, to destroy them and build again with no physical effort; they remove the sense of labour from the process. On screen, you become a kind of god, an omnipotent being in control of the worlds you construct. It encourages a distance which I think is a dangerous thing for designers.

With construction toys, you are grounded on the floor, mired in the shortage of pieces, the necessity to improvise, up against the frustrations of gravity, imperfect joints and commercial compromise. The perfect start for an architect.

Relatedly, Kyle Vanhemert reports on a Lego set designed especially for fledgling architects. More here.

(Photo by Flickr user lonoak)

Why Did Picasso Prosper?

by Jessie Roberts

Ian Leslie suggests that Pablo Picasso’s success with Cubism was hardly inevitable, but rather the product of circumstance:

First, there was a new kind of consumer: the industrial revolution had created a class of young, educated, affluent Parisians, who, keen to distinguish themselves from their dish_picasso more conventional elders, prided themselves on daring displays of taste.

Second, new channels of distribution were opening: the French government had divested itself of responsibility for the city’s annual art salon, and private galleries sprang up in its place. Finally, a new breed of art dealers emerged, many of them foreign and thus outsiders to the Parisian establishment. These young, hungry businessmen competed to find the new new thing first and sell it at the most aggressive price possible.

In short, and almost without anyone noticing, Paris’s art market had become receptive to the commercial possibilities of risk-taking. Artistic innovation was becoming economically viable for the first time. Breaking with the past was starting to be encouraged; soon it would be demanded. This was the environment in which Picasso made his leap into the unknown.

[Professor Stoyan] Sgourev’s analysis of Cubism suggests that having an exceptional idea isn’t enough: if it is to catch fire, the market conditions have to be right. That’s a question of luck and timing as much as it is of genius.

(Image: Portrait of Pablo Picasso, Juan Gris, 1912, via Wikimedia Commons)

Litspam 101

by Jessie Roberts

In a review of Spam: A Shadow History of the Internet, Kevin Driscoll touches on a very contemporary genre:

“Litspam,” writes [author Finn] Brunton, came in the form of “cut-up literary texts statistically reassembled to take advantage of flaws in the design and deployment of [probabilistic] filters.” Drawing on the deep well of public domain texts available on sites like Project Gutenberg, this new spam could read like “fractured textual experiments”: automated Dada-like poetry combining such disparate material as Jules Verne novels, Nelly lyrics, and a long-lost recipe for pecan sandies. These “litspam generators,” the agents of what Brunton calls “spam’s modernism,” were designed to incorporate enough hostage literature to trick the probabilistic spam filters into classifying their output as authentically human. A 2005 email from “Clyde Blankenship” titled “Observations on my first Cia1!s experience” illustrates the “pure arbitrary utility” of a typical litspam pastiche:

forsaken is multiple gaseous a balmy not stannous cool.
indefatigable is pigtail coed is
bracket a commodious cyclist good.
lotus is greenberg catch a haulage not regis cool.
actaeon is elsinore mud is
familiarly a expiable toe good.

Brunton hesitates to liken such “poisoned Bayesian spew” to the work of human poets — even those employing avant-garde cut-up techniques — instead comparing litspam to “flipping through channels on a television.” To date, none of the anonymous programmers responsible for the machinery behind litspam have stepped forward to claim authorship, but their voices would lend an intriguing new dimension to this period.

Studying The Moment Before Death

by Jessie Roberts


Ed Yong reports on a study that may help explain the phenomenon of near-death experiences:

[Neuroscientist Jimo] Borjigin discovered that rats show an unexpected pattern of brain activity immediately after cardiac arrest. With neither breath nor heartbeats, these rodents were clinically dead but for at least 30 seconds, their brains showed several signals of conscious thought, and strong signals to boot. This suggests that our final journey into permanent unconsciousness may actually involve a brief state of heightened consciousness.

Although the experiments were done in rats, Borjigin thinks they have implications for the near-death experiences (NDEs) reported by one in five people who are resuscitated after their hearts stop. Although they were unconscious, unresponsive and clinically dead at the time, they come back with stories of bright lights, “realer than real” memories, and meetings with people they knew. Some scientists have dismissed these accounts outright. Others have taken NDEs as proof of a religious afterlife or a consciousness that lives on outside the body, as popularised in a recent bestseller of dubious provenance.

But Borjigin’s research suggests that these experiences could just be a natural product of a dying brain. That doesn’t make them any less real, but it does root them in the natural world, without the need for a “super-” prefix.

(Photo by Flickr user Matt From London)

Faith And Intelligence

by Jessie Roberts


A meta-analysis of 63 scientific studies conducted between 1928 and 2012 has found that 53 of the studies showed “a negative correlation between intelligence and religiosity, while 10 showed a positive one.” Frank Furedi criticizes the claims:

It’s not that researchers are dishonest but that they like anyone else suffer from a tendency to discover what they already suspect. In the current era where religion is increasingly associated with out-dated beliefs, dubious traditions, dogma and prejudice it is inevitable that the authority of science will be harnessed to prove the religious stupid. Is it any surprise that in a smug tweet Richard Dawkins refers to this meta-analysis with feigned surprise as to why the cleverness of atheists should even be questioned?

The polemical use of science – called scientism- has nothing to with real science, which is the disinterested pursuit of the truth. It uses the authority of science to invalidate the moral status of groups and individuals and their practices on the ground of their natural inferiority. It is the 21st century equivalent of 19th century craniology.

Regrettably the mantra “research shows” has become a substitute for a critical engagement of views. Devaluing the intelligence of your opponents is what children do when they call one another stupid. It absolves its practitioners from taking the arguments of their opponents seriously.

Jack Vance at Atheist Revolution is also skeptical of the study, as is Deacon Nick Donnelly:

‘[R]eligiosity’ is defined as ‘involvement in some (or all) facets of religion’. ‘Religiosity’ is restricted to a very stark, undefined ‘functionality’ with no attempt to examine the role of reason, or insight, the apprehension of truth and meaning, the intelligence of the heart, the perception of values, let alone the activity of grace, the response to revelation, the presence of God.

Recent Dish on scientism here and here. On the above image:

Grace is a 1918 photograph by Eric Enstrom. It depicts an elderly man, Charles Wilden, with hands folded, saying a prayer over a table with a simple meal. It was taken in Bovey, Minnesota. Originally black-and-white, the photo was colorized by hand by Enstrom’s daughter, Rhoda Nyberg. It was this colorized version that attained widespread distribution. In 2002, an act of the Minnesota State Legislature established it as the state photograph.


by Jessie Roberts

e-David is a robot programmed to paint copies of art pieces:

The thing that sets the bot apart from his contemporaries is a visual feedback system, a technological set of eyes that continually checks to see how close he’s coming to the mark. Every so often, e-David will take a photograph of his canvas and, after some image correction, subtract it from the image he’s trying to reproduce. Looking at the difference between the two, it determines which areas of the canvas are too dark or too light, generates a hundred or so potential brush strokes, and then chooses which of those are best suited to minimize that difference.

In many ways, the project sidesteps some of the thornier conceptual issues painting robots typically grapple with–concerns like authorship and intent. “Regardless of what we implement, the machine will never be a person,” Oliver Deussen, one of the researchers behind the effort, explained to WIRED UK. “It will only have a very limited idea about what it is doing, no intention. Our simulation is only about the craftsmanship that is involved in the painting process.” In other words, Deussen and his collaborators don’t expect their robotic arm to think like an artist. They just want it to paint like one.

The Game Of Life

by Jessie Roberts

The Novelist is a video game with an unconventional objective:

[T]he player is tasked with guiding an author named Dan Kaplan and deciding how he will spend his days. There are no bullets or rocket launchers here: the core conflict revolves around Dan’s ability—or inability—to balance his career, his marriage, and his relationship with his son.

You, the player, don’t directly control Dan; instead you are a ghost who inhabits his house. You can watch, observe, and manipulate at your discretion. One day, you might direct Dan to sit and work on his novel, boosting his career at the cost of neglecting his wife and son. Another day you might have help out his wife at an art show, or take his kid to the beach. Every time you go down one branch, the other two could suffer.

The idea, designer Kent Hudson says, is to make us all think about how we approach our own major life decisions. “There’s no winning or losing,” Hudson told me during a lengthy phone chat a few weeks ago. “You play through and get a story that my hope—and this sounds so pretentious—but my hope is that as you’re presented with the same fundamental question in nine different ways over the course of the game, that you start to learn about your own values.”

(Hat tip: Page-Turner)