Cosmic Rays

“For months, Google had been experiencing an increasing number of hardware failures. The problem was that, as Google grew, its computing infrastructure also expanded. Computer hardware rarely failed, until you had enough of it—then it failed all the time.  … Strange environmental factors came into play. When a supernova explodes, the blast wave creates high-energy particles that scatter in every direction; scientists believe there is a minute chance that one of the errant particles, known as a cosmic ray, can hit a computer chip on Earth, flipping a 0 to a 1. The world’s most robust computer systems, at NASA, financial firms, and the like, used special hardware that could tolerate single bit-flips. But Google, which was still operating like a startup, bought cheaper computers that lacked that feature.” 

Wait, what? This is from a boring New Yorker article about “the friendship that made Google huge” between two programmers. But what about the cosmic rays that mess with computer chips? This point is never returned to. I want to read an article about cosmic rays! What else do they fuck with?

(The article:

Image credit: A. Chantelauze, S. Staffi, and L. Bret. From

The Use of Dreaming


Science has long understood that REM sleep—the stages of sleep characterized by rapid eye movement, in which most dreaming takes place—plays a vital role in our mental health. The human need for REM is so uncompromising that, when it is inhibited over a long period by excessive alcohol use, the pent-up backlog will release itself in a form of waking psychosis, otherwise known as delirium tremens. For a long time, the scientific establishment suspected that dreams were a superfluous by-product of the REM state. But in recent decades, thanks in large part to the advent of brain-imaging machines, scientists have been able to establish that dreams themselves are essential to the benefits of REM sleep. First, dreams knit up the ravelled sleeve of care by allowing us to process unhappy or traumatic experiences. Typically, during the REM state, the flow of an anxiety-triggering brain chemical called noradrenaline is shut off, so that we are able to revisit distressing real-life events in a neurochemically calm environment. As a result, the intensity of emotion that we feel about these events in our waking lives is reduced to manageable levels. …

Dreams also help us to master new skills; practicing a task or a language in our sleep can be as helpful as doing so when we are awake. And they appear to be crucial in honing our capacity for decoding facial expression: the dream-starved tend to slip into default paranoia, interpreting the friendliest expressions as menacing. Perhaps most alluring, dreams help us to synthesize new pieces of information with preëxisting knowledge, and to make creative lateral connections. The long list of inventions and great works said to have been generated in dreams includes the periodic table, the sewing machine, Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan,” Paul McCartney’s “Let It Be,” and Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein.”

According to Robb, there is a means by which we can harness the visionary and problem-solving capacities of dreaming: the lucid dream. This is the kind of dream in which a person is aware of dreaming, and is able to wield some control over events—to decide to fly, say, or to visit Paris. “Those who master lucidity,” Robb writes, “can dream about specific problems, seek answers or insights, stage cathartic encounters, and probe the recesses of the unconscious.”

Zoe Heller, from this article:

Queen Tina Hatshepsut


Tina Turner feeling an electric tingle of recognition at Ancient Egyptian imagery is solid supporting evidence of past lives. If anyone’s an Egyptian queen reincarnated, it’s most likely Tina Turner. In her own words:

Q: What book, if any, most influenced your decision to become a songwriter and musician or contributed to your artistic development?

“One day, I was walking through an airport with Ike when I spotted a book in a shop. It was a beautiful coffee table book called ‘Ancient Egypt,’ and for some reason I felt a spine-tingling, instant connection, especially when I saw a picture of Hatshepsut, one of the first female pharaohs. Then a psychic told me that I had been Hatshepsut in another life. The thought was so empowering! Several years later, Jeannette Obstoj, Rupert Hine and Jamie West-Oram wrote a beautiful song for me, “I Might Have Been Queen,” based on my feelings about my Egyptian past.“

From her “By the Book,” Oct. 18, 2018:


Strange machine

“What a strange machine man is!” he said, with astonishment. “You fill him with bread, wine, fish, radishes, and out of him come sighs, laughter and dreams. Like a factory.” 

from Zorba the Greek, by Nikos Kazantzakis 

Be More Like Gertrude Stein

Is my new mantra… This is from a 1934 New Yorker “Talk of the Town” piece on her:

Miss Stein gets up every morning about ten and drinks some coffee, against her will. She’s always been nervous about becoming nervous and she thought coffee would make her nervous, but her doctor prescribed it. Miss Toklas, her companion, gets up at six and starts dusting and fussing around. Once she broke a fine piece of Venetian glass and cried. Miss Stein laughed and said “Hell, oh hell, hell, objects are made to be consumed like cakes, books, people.” Every morning Miss Toklas bathes and combs their French poodle, Basket, and brushes its teeth. It has its own toothbrush.

Miss Stein has an outsize bathtub that was especially made for her. A staircase had to be taken out to install it. After her bath she puts on a huge wool bathrobe and writes for a while, but she prefers to write outdoors, after she gets dressed. Especially in the Ain country, because there are rocks and cows there. Miss Stein likes to look at rocks and cows in the intervals of her writing. The two ladies drive around in their Ford till they come to a good spot. Then Miss Stein gets out and sits on a campstool with pencil and pad, and Miss Toklas fearlessly switches a cow into her line of vision. If the cow doesn’t seem to fit in with Miss Stein’s mood, the ladies get into the car and drive on to another cow. When the great lady has an inspiration, she writes quickly, for about fifteen minutes. But often she just sits there, looking at cows and not turning a wheel.

Miss Stein always drives, and Miss Toklas rides in the back seat, squealing and jumping, for they say that Miss Stein is the worst driver in the history of automotive engineering. She takes corners fast, doesn’t put out her hand, drives on the wrong side of the street, pays no more attention to traffic signals or intersections than she does to punctuation marks, and never honks. Now and then Alice will lean over from the back seat and honk. They haven’t had any accidents. One writer who visited her had a fake wire sent to him from Paris calling him back, because he was afraid he’d be killed in the Ford.

Miss Stein spends much of her time quarrelling with friends—always about literature or painting. The quarrels are passionate ones, involving everybody, taking hours to get under way, lasting for years (like the one with Hemingway). Nobody remembers after a couple of months exactly what the quarrels are about. The maid at the Stein house in Paris has to be told every day who will be persona grata at tea—it all depends on the quarrel of the night before. Gertrude sits up late, talking, arguing, and laughing; she has a rich, deep, and warming laugh. Afterward she wakes up Alice, who goes to bed early, and they go over the talk of the whole day. Miss Stein has a photographic memory for conversation.

The lady wears astonishing clothes: sandals, woollen stockings fit for a football-player, a man’s plush fedora hat perched high on her head, rough tweed suits over odd embroidered waistcoats and peasant tunics. She also wears extraordinary blue-and-white striped knickers for underdrawers. This came out when she lost them once at a concert given by Virgil Thomson at the Hotel Majestic. She just stepped out of them somehow and left them lying there on the floor. She thought it was very funny and laughed loudly.


Biomorphic streamlined forms

From Miró [Calder] took more directly a visual visual vocabulary–the biomorphic streamlined forms, at once abstract and animal, that would be the basis of his art-making for the rest of his life.


I love this description by Adam Gopnik of something that seems indescribable (Calder’s sculpture shapes). They are suddenly tangible. From his essay on a recent calder biography in the 7 Dec. 2017 edition of The New Yorker.


The entire morning passes but I’m already tired of all the old themes. In the afternoon, still we love and are unloved, still we understand no one, still we and our love will die, still reality is hard to admit and harder to escape, still the essential moments are unexpected yet nothing is new, still we were wrong about the past but the future is about to begin, still things make sense, still there is but one reliance.

Sarah Manguso, from Hard to Admit and Harder to Escape

Thoughts on Fire and Fury by Michael Wolff


Wolff’s book has been criticized for not being a solid piece of journalism. Indeed, in the introduction, he gives a blanket explanation on his sources and how he doesn’t attribute quotes and assertions. I also heard this book critiqued as tabloid fodder, but I think it’s much better than that. Michael Wolff can write. He doesn’t come in with razor-sharp political analysis a la David Remnick, true, but he’s incredibly insightful in terms of situating Trump within the insider-y media landscape, both as subject and active participant. On a purely human level, too, he provides deft, vivid sketches of all of the players. They are visual and precise in terms of situating each of the “characters” in their particular political, media or show business context.

Wolff doesn’t turn away in disgust. He dives in. Steve Bannon is the anti-hero of the book, while Trump is the mythological beast, the oracle, monster and idiot savant of its universe. What sticks with me is the default deference he’s given by those around him, no matter how irrational, mean or stupid he gets (particularly in the beginning), for having pulled off that feat, pulling the sword from the stone: winning the presidency. It must mean something about him, they think, that he knows something or senses something or has a plan.

I was particularly taken with Wolff’s description of Trump’s hair. It’s indicative of his particular skills as a writer:

An absolutely clean pate – a contained island after scalp reduction surgery – surrounded by a furry circle of hair around the sides and front, from which all ends are drawn up to meet in the center then swept back and secured by a stiffening spray.

In a recent “By the Book” New York Times mini-interview, Joyce Carol Oates described this book as comforting. That’s exactly how I felt about it, though I’m still figuring out why. Maybe it’s the simple fact of having a direct and up-close record of a chaotic, upsetting and incredible time we’re all still trying to fathom, the confirmation of someone else having lived through it, confirmation that it was indeed unbelievable, kind of stupid at the same time, that the people at the top have no experience and are fumbling along.

So much has happened already since the book was published. I wanted it to keep going and going up until the present moment, to help keep making sense of reality.

Thoughts on Natalia Ginzburg’s Family Lexicon (NYRB edition)


It’s bold to assert there was something lost in the translation of this memoir without having access to the source text and only basic knowledge of Italian. However, having translated since I could read, basically, and working as a professional translator I know enough to sympathize with the hard translation problems faced by Jenny McPhee, that translator, which don’t have satisfactory solutions. Ginzburg sets up the songs, expressions, and rhymes that characterized her parents and siblings as the framework for her story of growing up in Turin in the 1920s. Schoolyard chants, lyrics from old songs, jokes: texts that have a richness and particularity that are inextricable from the language they’re composed in. McPhee makes a valiant effort, but the results, rather than being charming, or funny or familiar, as is intended, are alienating to an English-speaking reader. They didn’t bring me closer, as a reader, to the people being affectionately, though honestly, recalled. There are also many mentions of Italian political and cultural figures that are obscure to non-Italian readers – for example, intellectuals involved in the anti-Fascist movement who are close friends of the Ginzburg’s parents.

The second half of the memoir, while much more serious and upsetting, is a better read. The kids are all grown up and facing the rise of fascism, anti-Semitism and World Word Two. Ginzburg’s father is arrested, and a brother has to flee the country. Her husband dies in prison, while their brilliant friend, the poet Cesare Pavese, commits suicide. Ginzburg and her young children are exiled to the countryside. The writing becomes more fluid, more direct and more analytical. While Ginzburg’s intention was primarily to draw a family portrait and obscure herself, I found the times she reveals her own thoughts, attitudes and experiences the most compelling.

Regarding the problems inherent in translating texts that rhyme, texts with cultural and historical associations, etc., an imperfect solution is to provide the source text in the end notes. More context concerning the family’s anti-Fascist friends, their place in Italian political history would have also been welcome as end notes, too, as Ginzburg does not reveal any of this background information, only their names and relationship to her family.

On the whole, I wouldn’t dissuade anyone from picking up this book, and I would definitely read other work by Ginzburg. The spare, unflinching descriptions of Turin during the war are powerful, and her portrait of Pavese is haunting. There is also a warm and a full understanding of her mother, an expansive depiction of a positive, kind woman facing hardship and choosing to remain kind.

The postwar period was a time when everyone believed himself to be a poet and a politician. Everyone thought he could, or rather should, write poetry about any and all subjects since for so many years the world had been silenced and paralyzed, reality being something stuck behind glass–vitreous, crystalline, mute, and immobile. Novelists and poets had been starved of words during the fascist years. So many had been forbidden to use words, and the few who’d been able to use them were forced to choose them very carefully from the slim pickings that remained. During fascism, poets found themselves expressing only an arid, shut-off, cryptic dream world. Now, once more, many words were in circulation and reality appeared to be at everyone’s fingertips. So those who had been starved dedicated themselves to harvesting the words with delight. And the harvest was ubiquitous because everyone wanted to take part in it. The result was a confused mixing up of the languages of poetry and politics. Reality revealed itself to be complex and enigmatic, as indecipherable and obscure as the world of dreams. And it revealed itself to still be behind glass–the illusion that the glass had been broken, ephemeral. Dejected and disheartened, many soon retreated, sank back into a bitter starvation and profound silence. The postwar period, then, was very sad and full of dejection after the joyful harvest of its early days. Many pulled away and isolated themselves again, either within their dream worlds or in whatever random job they’d taken in a hurry in order to earn a living, jobs that seemed insignificant and dreary after so much hullabaloo. In any case, everyone soon forgot that brief, illusory moment of shared existence. Certainly, for many years, no one worked at the job he’d planned on and trained for, everyone believing that they could and must do a thousand jobs all at once. And much time passed before everyone took back upon his shoulders his profession and accepted the burden, the exhaustion, and the loneliness of the daily grind, which is the only way we have of participating in each other’s lives, each of us lost and trapped in our own parallel solitude.

Natalia Ginzburg, from Family Lexicon, trans. Jenny McPhee. I like how this is like a fairytale, or a Biblical story. World weary, though and disappointing. I had hoped for more than the daily grind!