Monthly Archives: February 2017

Alice Kaplan on the origins of “Meursault”

February 8, 2017
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Alice Kaplan on the origins of “Meursault”

Meursault, the protagonist (or anti-hero) of Albert Camus’s The Stranger, is one of literature’s all-time classic characters—a French-Algerian, emotionally detached drifter who murders an Arab in a griefless rage. Below, Alice Kaplan, author of the National Book Critics Circle-nominated Looking for The Stranger: Albert Camus and the Life of a Literary Classic, writes at Wonders and Marvels on the origins of the character’s name, and her theory as to why Camus picked the epithet he did. *** For any French reader, that name can only signify the delicious and expensive white Burgundy wine. I was really shocked when I looked at the only surviving manuscript of The Stranger and discovered that Camus writes his character’s name without a “u” throughout. Where did that “u” come from? Some Camus experts claim he thought of the name change at a dinner party where he was served an especially good bottle of the Burgundy wine. Then there’s the story of the contest. Every November, a literary prize of 3,000 bottles of Meursault wine was awarded to a book celebrating the glory of the land. An ad for the prize appeared in the French press in November, 1941, as Camus was putting finishing touches on his novel. Although Meursault isn’t a very funny . . .

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How the Zebra (and the researcher) Got Its Stripes

February 6, 2017
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How the Zebra (and the researcher) Got Its Stripes

If that doesn’t grab your attention, then perhaps this? A recent piece at WIRED profiled wildlife biologist Tim Caro’s fieldwork for Zebra Stripes, under the zingy headline, “The Man in the Zebra Suit Knows the Secret of the Stripes,” though the article itself willingly deep dives into Caro’s behaviorial-ist adventures. Zebra Stripes is based on Caro’s decade of fieldwork, which questioned the significance of black-and-white striping, and through every possible hypothetical series of circumstances, arrived at an unexpected conclusion: zebra markings are nature’s defense against fly bites. As WIRED writes: At four in the morning, Tim Caro roused his colleagues. Bleary-eyed and grumbling, they followed him to the edge of the village, where the beasts were hiding. He sat them down in chairs, and after letting their eyes adjust for a minute, he asked them if they saw anything. And if so, would they please point where? Not real beasts. Despite being camped in Tanzania’s Katavi National Park, Caro was asking his colleagues to identify pelts—from a wildebeest, an impala, and a zebra—that he had draped over chairs or clotheslines. Caro wanted to know if the zebra’s stripes gave it any sort of camouflage in the pre-dawn, when many predators hunt, and he needed the sort of replicability he . . .

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The Difference It Makes: On Jessica Riskin’s The Restless Clock

February 3, 2017
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The Difference It Makes: On Jessica Riskin’s The Restless Clock

From a recent review of Jessica Riskin’s The Restless Clock: A History of the Centuries-Long Argument over What Makes Living Things Tick, by George Scialabba at Inference: According to the delightful science fiction romance film, Her, artificial intelligences also socialize, or will before long. I imagine them asking one another at parties, “Are you an agent?” They will not, of course, be asking about literary representation, but about the psychological or emotional or moral capacity we commonly call agency. They’ll be looking to find out whether the AI they’re meeting answers ultimately to itself or to someone else, whether it can set and change its own goals, whether it can surprise itself and others. Beings possessed of agency are autonomous, spontaneous, capable of initiative, and moved by internal as well as external forces or drives. According to Jessica Riskin’s The Restless Clock, agency is everywhere, or at least far more widespread than is dreamt of in modern philosophy of science. If agency is “an intrinsic capacity to act in the world,” then science is not having any of it. It is “a founding principle of modern science … that a scientific explanation must not attribute will or agency to natural phenomena.” This ban on agency is . . .

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Our free e-book for February: The Fear of Barbarians

February 1, 2017
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Our free e-book for February: The Fear of Barbarians

Our free e-book for February is Tzvetan Todorov’s The Fear of Barbarians—download your copy, here. *** The relationship between Western democracies and Islam, rarely entirely comfortable, has in recent years become increasingly tense. A growing immigrant population and worries about cultural and political assimilation—exacerbated by terrorist attacks in the United States, Europe, and around the world—have provoked reams of commentary from all parts of the political spectrum, a frustrating majority of it hyperbolic or even hysterical. In The Fear of Barbarians, the celebrated intellectual Tzvetan Todorov offers a corrective: a reasoned and often highly personal analysis of the problem, rooted in Enlightenment values yet open to the claims of cultural difference. Drawing on history, anthropology, and politics, and bringing to bear examples ranging from the murder of Theo van Gogh to the French ban on headscarves, Todorov argues that the West must overcome its fear of Islam if it is to avoid betraying the values it claims to protect. True freedom, Todorov explains, requires us to strike a delicate balance between protecting and imposing cultural values, acknowledging the primacy of the law, and yet strenuously protecting minority views that do not interfere with its aims. Adding force to Todorov’s arguments is his . . .

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