The demons that drove John Cheever

On a damp and unseasonably cold summer morning, Susan Cheever and I leave her apartment in New York and drive to Ossining, in Westchester County. We are going to visit the stone-ended Dutch Colonial she lived in as a teenager, a house her 90-year-old mother, Mary, still miraculously inhabits. Susan, who is 65, begins our journey with the slightly ragged air of one who has packed for a long trip a little too fast; her ultimate destination is Bennington College, Vermont, where she teaches non-fiction writing. But this doesn’t last long. Barely have we left the city than I notice that her face is suffused with a warm, proprietorial glow. Rather to my amazement, she is enjoying our talk, which is all about her father, John Cheever, the great American writer. I had expected it to be painful. “Oh, yes,” she says, when I mention this. “I’m sort of enchanted by my family. I have this weird family worship.” She peers determinedly through the misted windscreen. “Wait till you see the house! This beautiful building that is now the ugliest place on earth. It’s like the House of Usher.” Link

‘A Hidden Life’

Drie uur is een hele zit, maar aan A Hidden Life wel besteed. Terrence Malick beantwoordt een wezenlijke vraag: is het zinvol je leven op te offeren voor een principe? Als dat offer niets aan het grote geheel verandert, ze zich hooguit in het gehucht Sankt Radegund dat koppige boertje zullen herinneren? Uit het kleinste mosterdzaadje groeit de grootste boom, weet de Bijbel. A Hidden Life is een aangrijpend pleidooi voor geloof en martelaarschap dat zelfs de botste cynicus aan het denken zal zetten. Link

Harari: the world after coronavirus

Humankind is now facing a global crisis. Perhaps the biggest crisis of our generation. The decisions people and governments take in the next few weeks will probably shape the world for years to come. They will shape not just our healthcare systems but also our economy, politics and culture. We must act quickly and decisively. We should also take into account the long-term consequences of our actions. When choosing between alternatives, we should ask ourselves not only how to overcome the immediate threat, but also what kind of world we will inhabit once the storm passes. Yes, the storm will pass, humankind will survive, most of us will still be alive — but we will inhabit a different world.

Many short-term emergency measures will become a fixture of life. That is the nature of emergencies. They fast-forward historical processes. Decisions that in normal times could take years of deliberation are passed in a matter of hours. Immature and even dangerous technologies are pressed into service, because the risks of doing nothing are bigger. Entire countries serve as guinea-pigs in large-scale social experiments.

What happens when everybody works from home and communicates only at a distance? What happens when entire schools and universities go online? In normal times, governments, businesses and educational boards would never agree to conduct such experiments. But these aren’t normal times.  In this time of crisis, we face two particularly important choices. The first is between totalitarian surveillance and citizen empowerment. The second is between nationalist isolation and global solidarity. Link

H.L. Mencken -1880 – 1956-

In a recent conversation with the smartest person I know, she suggested that society might have a certain threshold for the tolerable rate of change, past which people begin to shut down and push back on progress. As Bob Dylan put it, “people have a hard time accepting anything that overwhelms them.” Perhaps it is that if we dismantle our crutches too quickly and attempt to leap forward, we end up falling backward — crutches though they may be, the limiting beliefs that exist in any given society at any given time exist for a reason, as a comfort and a hedge against the overwhelming uncertainty of progress and possibility. When a society has shed its crutches of inequality in a relatively short period — from finally recognizing the dignity of all love with marriage equality to finally taking stock of a generations-old wound with Black Lives Matter — vast swaths of the population are perhaps bound to find the rate of change intolerable, bound to find themselves tossed into a brave new world that feels incomprehensible and uncertain, and to react by facing backward rather than forward. Link

Deadliest air raid happened in Tokyo

The horrors Nihei saw that night were the result of Operation Meetinghouse, the deadliest of a series of firebombing air raids on Tokyo by the United States Army Air Forces, between February and May 1945.
They were designed largely by Gen. Curtis LeMay, commander of the US bombers in the Pacific. LeMay later launched airstrikes on North Korea and Vietnam and supported the idea of a preemptive nuclear attack against Russia during the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962.
Though US President Franklin Roosevelt had sent messages to all warring governments urging them to refrain from the “inhuman barbarism” of bombing civilian populations at the outbreak of war in Europe in 1939, by 1945 that policy had changed.
After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the US was determined to retaliate. By 1942, Japan’s empire in the Pacific was at its most powerful. US war planners came up with a target list designed to obliterate anything that might help Tokyo, from aircraft bases to ball bearing factories.
But to execute its plan, the US needed air bases in range of Japan’s main islands. Link

The choosen sociopath, symptom of sick country

Before the revisionists try too hard to make us forget, Trump’s leadership as the virus spread was as loud as a red cap perched on an orange combover. He abolished the pandemic group inside his own national security council, set aside the pandemic playbook left by his predecessor, and proposed cutting the CDC’s funding at the very moment the pandemic was taking hold. He spent February pretending like the pandemic was a hoax or would disappear, and spent March telling governors to fend for themselves.

So how did he respond to the worst weekly unemployment claims in American history? By changing the subject to the oil industry, suggesting that the Saudis and Russians might just be cutting production. As he bizarrely tweeted to a shell-shocked nation, “If it happens, will be GREAT for the oil & gas industry.”

Only this sociopath of a president could imagine that what’s good for the oil industry is good for the souls of 10 million newly unemployed Americans. Link

The food supply chain say the system is built to endure

“I can definitely understand people’s concern. Whenever they go into the grocery store, they’re used to seeing everything… but fundamentally, when you think of food production and distribution, food is produced at a high rate right now,” says Lowell Randel, vice president of the Global Cold Chain Alliance (GCCA) in the US.

What a crisis like the novel coronavirus reveals about the food system, more so than its weak points, is actually its flexibility and strength under pressure. The supply chain relies on several industry-spanning mechanisms that are designed to adapt when natural disasters strike – or when food sectors need to pivot during seasonal production spikes. In other words, we’ve been here before. Link

Hungry black hole may be cosmic ‘missing link’

A team of astronomers has found what it says is the best evidence yet for an elusive class of black hole.

They say the presumed “intermediate-mass” black hole betrayed its existence by tearing apart a wayward star that ventured too close.

These medium-sized objects are a long-sought “missing link” in the evolution of the cosmos.

Researchers used two X-ray observatories, along with the Hubble telescope, to identify the object.

“Intermediate-mass black holes are very elusive objects, and so it is critical to carefully consider and rule out alternative explanations for each candidate, said Dr Dacheng Lin, from the University of New Hampshire in Durham, US, who led the study. Link

H2Go Power seeks to power drones with a ‘happy gas’

When you think about hydrogen and flight, the image that comes to mind for most is the Hindenburg airship in flames. But in a lab deep in the basement of Imperial College in London, a young team has built what it believes is the future of air travel.

H2Go Power is seeking a patent to store the explosive gas cheaply and safely.

Until now, storing hydrogen required ultra-strong and large tanks which could withstand pressures of up to 10,000 pound-force per square inch (psi). That is hundreds of times greater than what you would find in a car tyre. But, while studying for her PhD in Cambridge, Dr Enass Abo-Hamed came up with a revolutionary structure which could store hydrogen as a stable solid without compression. Link

The task of politics today is to scare the capitalists as much as communism did

Let us try to change that today, for I come not to bury communism but to praise it – or rather, one aspect of it that gets next to no recognition. On its own terms, “really existing socialism” was a miserable failure: brutally repressive to its own peoples and ultimately unable to compete with capitalist economies. Yet it achieved something else that its own politburos and planners never intended – an achievement that represents one of our era’s greatest paradoxes. Communism didn’t topple capitalism, but kept it honest – and so saved it from itself.

The very presence of a powerful rival ideology frightened capitalists into sharing their returns with workers and the rest of the society, in higher wages, more welfare spending and greater public investment. By sending tanks into Prague in 1968, Leonid Brezhnev may have crushed the dream of “socialism with a human face”; but he and other Soviet general secretaries forced capitalism to become less inhumane. Conversely, the collapse of communism between 1989 and 1991 has left capitalism unchallenged and untempered – and increasingly unviable. The challenge of our time, whether in the UK’s general election or next year’s US presidential contest, is to build a political movement that can restrain a system spinning madly out of control. Link

White noise

Late last year Spotify presented me with my Top 100 most listened to tracks of 2018 and, as ever when I’m presented with some unknown version of myself, I couldn’t wait to analyse it. Like a dog returning to its vomit, nothing fascinates me more than my own alien excretions. I could spend the rest of my life contorting my brain to view tagged pictures of myself, attempting to understand how others see me. But there it was, above the other great heroes of my year, Leonard Cohen and Ariana Grande. In the number one spot was White Noise. Not just White Noise – “White Noise For Babies”. I had listened to nothing all year as much as I had listened to flat soundscapes designed to soothe infants.

I first came to white noise shortly after I moved to London from Dublin. I left Ireland in a hurry, with no good plans in place, no real reason to have come, and so lived for two years in a constant stressful flux. I worked temp jobs, I sub-let my bedroom, I relied on the generosity of my best friend to top up my Oyster card when I had nothing left. I felt flayed. London left nothing to the imagination. Link

Dutch influence still echoes across contemporary American life

When his children were at preschool in Hackensack, New Jersey, building restorer and historian Tim Adriance taught them a simple nursery rhyme. Although it has a Dutch name – Trip a Trop a Tronjes (“The Father’s Knee is a Throne”) – the song can be sung in English too, making it easy for them to learn. Soon, Adriance remembers, their whole class, mostly Filipino and African American boys and girls, were enthusiastically chanting along.

None of this seems unusual unless you know the song’s history. Remarkably, Trip a Trop a Tronjes was first sung on American shores in the 1600s, before the United States even existed, when Dutch settlers established New Amsterdam – now New York – and built farms in the surrounding countryside. Centuries later, the song has survived through Tim Adriance and Dutch-Americans like him, passed on to immigrant children who reached New Jersey in a different age.

This is part of a far larger, mostly unexplored story. New Amsterdam was renamed centuries ago, and the hills and copses once known as New Netherland – the short-lived, 17th-Century Dutch colony in North America – now lope gently through a stretch of the US states of New York, New Jersey, Delaware and Connecticut. But like Trip a Trop a Tronjesin Hackensack, the old Dutch influence still echoes across contemporary American life. This is doubly true in the region the Dutch once called home: the architecture, language and culture of New Netherland influences New York today, even if most modern-day inhabitants have little idea of the history beneath their feet. Link

An ordinary bicycle’s epic journey

Bicycle-making has become one of the most complex and integrated international industries there is.

Made On Earth – a new series by BBC Future and BBC World News – looks into the everyday items that have shaped global trade routes and left a lasting imprint in cultures around the world. Link

The smart move

We all know people who have suffered by trusting too much: scammed customers, jilted lovers, shunned friends. Indeed, most of us have been burned by misplaced trust. These personal and vicarious experiences lead us to believe that people are too trusting, often verging on gullibility.

In fact, we don’t trust enough.

Take data about trust in the United States (the same would be true in most wealthy democratic countries at least). Interpersonal trust, a measure of whether people think others are in general trustworthy, is at its lowest in nearly 50 years. Yet it is unlikely that people are any less trustworthy than before: the massive drop in crime over the past decades suggests the opposite. Trust in the media is also at bottom levels, even though mainstream media outlets have an impressive (if not unblemished) record of accuracy. Link

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