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“It is deeply satisfying to win a prize in front of a lot of people”*…

 

I first learned about the Sartre Prize from “NB,” the reliably enjoyable last page of London’s Times Literary Supplement, signed by J.C. The fame of the award, named for the writer who refused the Nobel in 1964, is or anyhow should be growing fast. As J.C. wrote in the November 23, 2012, issue, “So great is the status of the Jean-Paul Sartre Prize for Prize Refusal that writers all over Europe and America are turning down awards in the hope of being nominated for a Sartre.” He adds with modest pride, “The Sartre Prize itself has never been refused.”

Newly shortlisted for the Sartre Prize is Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who turned down a fifty-thousand-euro poetry award offered by the Hungarian division of PEN. The award is funded in part by the repressive Hungarian government. Ferlinghetti politely suggested that they use the prize money to set up a fund for “the publication of Hungarian authors whose writings support total freedom of speech.”…

The unsurpassed Ursula Le Guin explores the rewards of refusal: “The Literary Prize for the Refusal of Literary Prizes.”

* E.B. White, Charlotte’s Web

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As we just say no, we might send lyrical birthday greetings to Christian Johann Heinrich Heine; he was born on this date in 1797.   A poet, journalist, essayist, and literary critic, he is best known outside of Germany for his early lyric poetry, which was set to music in the form of Lieder (art songs) by composers such as Robert Schumann and Franz Schubert.

In his 1823 Almansor: A Tragedy he wrote, “Wherever books are burned, men in the end will also burn”… an observation that proved prescient in a personal way: his own books were burned by the Nazis during the 1930s.

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Written by LW

December 13, 2017 at 1:01 am

“I cannot choose one hundred best books because I have only written five”*…

 

Fernando Sdrigotti, The Situationist Guide to Parenting

Since the arrival of twins, Spirulina and Ocelot, I have been indebted to my great friend and editor Fernando Sdrigotti for his invaluable parenting guide, inspired by the philosopher and alcoholic Guy Debord. No more awkward silences during the hours it seems to take the au pair to dry her hair — Sdrigotti’s guide provides no end of suitable conversation topics for bright 2 year olds, from Peppa Pig’s role in mediating social interactions between toddlers in the nursery to detourning the playground. Can’t afford another holiday abroad this year? Just remember, as Sdrigotti tells us, beneath each playpen lies the beach! The Situationist Guide to Parenting shifts the paradigm of the self-help genre, reinventing Sdrigotti as a Dr Spock for the modern dad.

It’s that time again– time for a cascade of “year’s best” lists.  Here, from 3:am Magazine, a particularly satisfying one: from the tantalizing title above to such interest-piquers as Sima Nitram’s I Fucking Hate Don XL, George Glaciate-Furbisher’s Flenge’s Dictum, and Diana Smith-Higglebury, Reclaimed Territory: A post-Brexit Britain Household Companion, a list of books that one needn’t feel bad for not reading…  as they don’t exist.  Hilariously ridiculous authors, titles, and critical precis– wonder at what might have been at “3:am books of the year.”

* Oscar Wilde

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As we turn to books that we should perhaps actually read, we might send closely-observed birthday greetings to Gustave Flaubert; he was born on this date in 1821.  Best remembered now for his 1856 novel Madame Bovary, (and his meticulous devotion to his style and aesthetics), Flaubert reportedly woke at 10am every day and promptly hammered on his ceiling, to get his mother to come down and talk to him.

Flaubert helped to introduce a new form of realism into fiction; as a consequence he and his work had considerable influence on later writers, from his protege Guy de Maupassant to Joseph Conrad and James Joyce.

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Written by LW

December 12, 2017 at 1:01 am

“We should preserve every scrap of biodiversity as priceless while we learn to use it and come to understand what it means to humanity”*…

 

According to Bioversity International, an international research and policy organization, just three crops — rice, wheat and maize — provide more than half of plant-derived calories consumed worldwide. This is a problem because our diets are heavy in calories, sugar and saturated fat and low in fruits and vegetables…

Generally, agrobiodiversity is significantly lower in wealthy nations, where the industrial food system pushes toward genetic uniformity. For example, federal agriculture policy in the United States tends to favor raising large crops of corn and soybeans, which are big business. Crop subsidiesfederal renewable fuel targets and many other factors reinforce this focus on a few commodity crops.

In turn, this system drives production and consumption of inexpensive, low-quality food based on a simplified diet. The lack of diversity of fruit and vegetables in the American diet has contributed to a national public health crisis that is concentrated among socioeconomically disadvantaged groups. Low agrobiodiversity also makes U.S. agriculture more vulnerable to pests, diseases, and climate change.

To connect these conditions to agrobiodiversity, consider potatoes. Although the United States has 10 times more people than Peru, only about 150 varieties of potato are sold here. Six varieties account for three-quarters of our national potato harvest. They dominate because they produce high yields under optimal conditions and are easy to store, transport and process — especially into french fries and potato chips. Federal policies have helped these varieties become established by reducing the cost of irrigation…

Global shifts of urbanization, migration, markets, and climate can be compatible with agrobiodiversity, but other powerful forces are undermining it: “Agrobiodiversity Is Disappearing at a Time When We Need It Most.”

To put all of this in (very) deep historical perspective, see also: “Why Did We Start Farming.”

* E. O. Wilson

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As we value variety, we might spare a thought for Benton MacKaye; he died on this date in 1975.  A forester, planner, professor, and conservationist, he wrote widely on land preservation and on the need to balance human needs and those of nature, and he co-founded The Wilderness Society.  But he is best known as the originator of the Appalachian Trail— a 2,000-mile footpath from Maine to Georgia– an idea he presented in his 1921 article titled An Appalachian Trail: A Project in Regional Planning.  The Benton MacKaye Trail, some portions of which coincide with the Appalachian Trail, is named for him.

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“A flash of revelation and a flash of response”*…

 

“A Cellar Dive in the Bend,” c.1895, by Richard Hoe Lawrence and Henry G. Piffard

All photography requires light, but the light used in flash photography is unique — shocking, intrusive and abrupt. It’s quite unlike the light that comes from the sun, or even from ambient illumination. It explodes, suddenly, into darkness.

The history of flash goes right back to the challenges faced by early photographers who wanted to use their cameras in places where there was insufficient light — indoors, at night, in caves. The first flash photograph was probably a daguerreotype of a fossil, taken in 1839 by burning limelight…

In its early days, a sense of quasi-divine revelation was invoked by some flash photographers, especially when documenting deplorable social conditions. Jacob Riis, for example, working in New York in the late 1880s, used transcendental language to help underscore flash’s significance as an instrument of intervention and purgation. But it’s in relation to documentary photography that we encounter most starkly flash’s singular, and contradictory, aspects. It makes visible that which would otherwise remain in darkness; but it is often associated with unwelcome intrusion, a rupturing of private lives and interiors.

Yet flash brings a form of democracy to the material world. Many details take on unplanned prominence, as we see in the work of those Farm Security Administration photographers who used flash in the 1930s and laid bare the reality of poverty during the Depression. A sudden flare of light reveals each dent on a kitchen utensil and the label on each carefully stored can; each photograph on the mantel; each cherished ornament; each little heap of waste paper or discarded rag; each piece of polished furniture or stained floor or accumulation of dust; each wrinkle. Flash can make plain, bring out of obscurity, the appearance of things that may never before have been seen with such clarity…

Find illumination at “A short history of flash photography.”

* J.M. Coetzee, Disgrace

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As we glory in the glare, we might send elegantly-calculated birthday greetings to Augusta Ada King-Noel, Countess of Lovelace (née Byron); she was born on this date in 1815.  The daughter of the poet Lord Byron, she was the author of what can reasonably be considered the first “computer program”– so one of the “parents” of the modern computer.  Her work was in collaboration with her long-time friend and thought partner Charles Babbage (known as “the father of computers”), in particular, in conjunction with Babbage’s work on the Analytical Engine.

Ada, Countess of Lovelace, 1840

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Written by LW

December 10, 2017 at 1:01 am

“Regard your good name as the richest jewel you can possibly possess”*…

 

Argument over a Card Game by Jan Steen

Before people had an image, they had their honour. For much of history, little was more valuable than individual honour. ‘Better to die 10,000 deaths than wound my honour,’ as a character in Joseph Addison’s Cato, A Tragedy (1712) put it. In his bestselling Of Domesticall Duties (1622), William Gouge declared: “a good name is a most pretious thing.”

Despite the persistence of the word and a loosely related idea, the concept of honour, as earlier eras understood it, is so foreign to moderns that it can be hard to grasp. A stereotyped account holds that in early modern England a man’s honour was associated with a willingness to use violence to defend his name, while for women honour was about the maintenance of a proper sexual reputation.

But this is a very thin and misleading idea of honour in early modern England. Personal letters and diaries of elites indeed reveal a preoccupation with honour, a sense of its almost inestimable value. They also reveal that honour wasn’t just about violence among elite men or sexual propriety among elite women. Honour concerned one’s whole person. Likewise, it was less a static, overarching code of behaviour than a loosely defined concept with an array of meanings that could be variously privileged, one over another, with fluidity depending upon the needs and objectives of an individual in a given situation…

On the complicated business of living an honorable life: “The early moderns had their work cut out curating their honour.”

See also: “Ye of ‘Bad Faith’.”

* Socrates

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As we wax nostalgic for a time when honor mattered most, we might send conflicted birthday greetings to a man whose life illustrated the early modern to modern transition from honor to image; Fritz Haber was born on this date in 1868.  The recipient of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1918 for his invention of the Haber–Bosch process, a method used in industry to synthesize ammonia from nitrogen gas and hydrogen gas– thus enabling the production of more, more affordable, and more effective fertilizers, which in turn allowed millions to avoid starvation– Haber is equally well known as the Father of Chemical Warfare for his pioneering work developing and weaponizing chlorine and other poisonous gases during World War I, especially his actions during the Second Battle of Ypres.

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Written by LW

December 9, 2017 at 1:01 am

“I am the Ghost of Christmas Present”*…

 

The 13 most popular Christmas songs on Spotify, a music-streaming service, have amassed 1bn plays between them. The most popular of them, “All I Want for Christmas Is You”, written in 15 minutes and recorded by Mariah Carey in 1994, accounts for 210m of those plays. It has earned over $60m in royalties since its release.

Despite its ubiquity during December, the appeal of festive music varies significantly by geography. Spotify provided The Economist with data for Christmas listening across 35 countries, and for every American state, on a day-by-day basis for the two months leading up to Christmas Day 2016. The data demonstrate that music lovers in Sweden and Norway listen to festive tunes most frequently. One in every six songs they streamed on Spotify during December last year received this classification (the list includes some 1,500 Christmas songs performed in English and local languages). By contrast, during the same period in Brazil—a country with a comparable proportion of Christians—just one song in 150 was Christmas-themed. Listening habits in American states also vary, though to a smaller degree: in New Hampshire Christmas songs accounted for one in nine streams, whereas in Nevada, the state where such tunes are least common, it was one in 20…

Why?  Find out at “The music industry should be dreaming of a white Christmas.”

* Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

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As we deck the halls, we might recall that it was on this date in 1957 that 55-year-old German accordionist Will Glahé outsold many established Rock And Roll artists when his “Liechtensteiner Polka” reaches #19 on the Billboard Pop chart. Glahé’s first success in America had come in June, 1939 when his rendition of “Beer Barrel Polka” hit the top of the US Hit Parade, selling over a million copies. (Your correspondent has no explanatory link for this one…)

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Written by LW

December 8, 2017 at 1:01 am

“Here we are, trapped in the amber of the moment”*…

 

We’ve all heard it before: There’s no time like the present. Broadly speaking, of course, it means to “seize the opportunity right now,” or maybe in my case, to avoid procrastinating. From a psychological perspective, this makes a lot of sense. As humans we experience time “passing,” and there is a special quality to the present moment. Hypnosis and dreams aside, there is no way to directly experience either the past or the future in the same way we experience the present. But is the aphorism true? Does modern physics actually tell us that there’s no time like the present?

Our best current physical theory of space and time is general relativity. Prior to Einstein’s revolution over a century ago, physics considered time to be an “external parameter”—an independent, fundamental feature of reality not influenced by any other factor in the universe. Whether or not the passage of time is real or illusory (this is an age-old philosophical debate that predates Einstein and is indeed not settled by his theory), we now know that time intervals are not external or universally determined. Time is an internal component of a physical system, a dimension intertwined with three spatial dimensions. Taken together, this is “spacetime,” and is influenced by varying factors and is influenced by varying factors, including speed (relative to other observers or systems) and gravitational forces. Because the theory of relativity posits the constancy of the speed of light for all observers (even if they are moving relative to each other), spacetime itself must dilate and the concept of a time interval becomes elastic.

As a result, there is no universal notion of the present that applies equally to all observers. What looks present to me could just as easily be in someone else’s future, and in a third person’s past. Simultaneity is relative…

Think there’s no time like the present? As Mark Shumelda suggests, modern physics begs to differ: “Actually, There Is a Time Like the Present.”

* Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

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As we cogitate on carpe diem, we might send playful birthday greetings to Johan Huizinga; he was born on this date in 1872.  A Dutch historian and one of the founders of modern cultural history, he is probably best remembered for his 1938 book Homo Ludens, in which he argues for the importance of the play element of culture and society, suggesting that play is primary to and a necessary (though not sufficient) condition of the generation of culture.

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Written by LW

December 7, 2017 at 1:01 am

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